This first book in a seven-part historical series that chronicles the beginnings of the Hundred Years' War and the fall of the Capetian kings sets the foreboding mood and relentless slow-march tempo that drives the characters forward to their dooms or noble destinies. At its heart is the French monarch, Philip the Fair (1268–1314), grandson of Saint Louis, who rules with an iron fist; it's his persecution of the Knights Templar, including burning its Grand Master at the stake, that sets the stage for his downfall. Adding to the intrigue is Druon's marvelous depiction of the swirl of those lives that move around him. The Iron King can be only as strong as those who serve him, after all. VERDICT Seasoned with sex, betrayal, brutal warfare, cold pragmatic calculating, and curses from the lips of martyrs dying at the stake, this tale cuts a memorable swath through the reader's imagination. The flavor of the times, the smells, sounds, values, and superstitions give this work a fine readability as well as a sensation of reality. With an introduction by George R.R. Martin, who cites this French epic series as an influence on his Game of Thrones, Druon's acclaimed work (first published in 1955) will find an audience with fans of historical fiction and Martin.—Russell Miller, Prescott P.L., AZ
Sex, intrigue and betrayal in the last days of the reign of Phillip the Fair of France. After losing a lawsuit to his aunt, the Countess Mahaut, 14th-century French nobleman Robert III of Artois feels cheated out of lands and a title that he feels should rightfully be his. He decides to take revenge against his aunt via her two daughters and her young cousin, who are married to the king's three sons. Unfortunately for them, Robert is aware that Marguerite, Mahaut's cousin, and Blanche, her daughter, are currently having affairs with two young gentlemen at court, while Jeanne, another daughter, helps to facilitate their trysts. Robert hatches a plot to expose the affairs, aided by his cousin Isabella, who also happens to be Phillip the Fair's daughter, unhappily married to King Edward II of England. But if the plot succeeds, the succession of the throne of France, and thus the realm itself, could be thrown into chaos. Hanging over all of this is the curse of the Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar, Jacques De Molay, who, while burning at the stake, used his dying breath to curse his tormentors, including King Phillip, to die by the end of the year. Druon, who himself died in 2009, captures the times in this, the first of a seven-book series about the descendants of Phillip the Fair and the start of the Hundred Years' War, which was originally published in French in the 1950s and '60s. The level of historic detail is astounding, and Druon masterfully brings his characters to life. Much of this book is presumably designed to set the stage for the rest of the series, and as a result, dozens of players are introduced, which can be overwhelming. Druon helpfully includes a detailed list of characters, though, as well as a family tree, to help readers untangle the often complicated familial and political relationships. Readers who do so will be richly rewarded. Historical fiction that reads like epic fantasy. Great stuff.