Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Iron King

My re-read of Brienne is coming, I've been writing on it on and off - it's been hard getting a couple of consecutive hours to really write.

Meanwhile, I have treated myself to an actual Kindle device, a so-called 'Paperwhite', and, while I was initially disappointed it didn't have colors (which I've been used to with the Kindle for Android and Kindle for PC apps), it was a happy new marriage to another gadget. It's battery life is basically astounding. The main reason I bought it was that reading from the smartphone, while easy, was straining my eyes and somewhat impossible in sunlight. It was also too easy to go online and surf uselessly instead of getting some solid reading in.

The result so far is that I actually finished the first book of The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon, "The Iron King"; such was the allure of my new toy. Reading it properly backlit is a great experience. And since my shelves are full (mostly with Martin and Erikson and Abercrombie and RPG books), it is so much more convenient to have books digitally.

The Iron King comes with George R.R. Martin's recommendation - if the cover is to be trusted, this is, according to our favorite author, "the original Game of Thrones" - and that is, of course, why I took a chance on this French author. Not that I believe anything Martin recommends is automatically gold, but Druon's work is apparently one of the actual main influences on A Song of Ice and Fire, along with fantastists like Tolkien and Vance (I still have to read Vance), and since it's based on actual medieval history which I've become interested in (again thanks to Martin), well, I really felt like trying it out.

My Kindle version is actually a bundle featuring books 1-3; "The Strangled Queen" and "The Poisoned Crown" are the two sequels to "The Iron King". While the general plot of "The Iron King" is like 700 years old, you might not want to be spoiled anyway, so I'll try not to say too much about the story itself, but rather whether I'd recommend it to another fan of George R.R. Martin's saga.

I am aware that Druon's work has recently become more popular precisely due to its connection to A Song of Ice and Fire (or "Game of Thrones" which many seem to believe the saga is called, grrumble), and that his books were difficult to find in English translations but that era is obviously over as, at least the first three books, are just one click away on Amazon. Martin has really talked up Druon's books but there are some major differences despite the similarities.

The biggest and probably most important difference is that Martin is a damn awesome writer who really immerses himself and the reader in a world through distinct POVs, POVs which aren't entirely reliable. "The Iron King" is almost the opposite in this regard, taking a somewhat distanced view at the characters and situations, to the point that Druon often breaks the fourth wall to tell you, the reader, that the reason for the famine of this or that year was because taxes such and so. He does not waste time going into much characterization; or rather, the characterization is spelled out bluntly ("This is what Monseigneur Valois looks like and this is how his personality is") instead of a more organic build like Martin's. You basically have to have some vested interest in medieval history to find this entertaining, I suppose.

The most important similarity, I suppose, is the complexity of political intrigue, and the nature of some of the people (characters) involved; there are plots within plots though, they too, are often glossed over to get to the next historical event of importance. Sprinkled throughout are chapters where the authors zooms a little closer in on the characters and that's when "The Iron King" feels most like a novel - Guccio Baglioni's tale, for example, feels "closer".

Keeping in mind that the novel was published in 1955, it is surprisingly fresh and readable, in fact I was surprised it was that 'old'. It's just a whole different style, but if you like Martin's intrigues in King's Landing specifically, "The Iron King" and probably its sequels will most likely entertain you - and of course there's the added value of getting a little actual history served, in a way that's more entertaining than a dry history book.

The most fun is to find the particular characters and situations that echo through Martin's work. There certainly is a Cersei Lannister in the book (not the batshit crazy Cersei of Feast but rather the Cersei of the early books), and the (tragic) story of how the princesses of France are caught in a trap might just have inspired A Feast for Crows' tale of Cersei and Margaery. Martin may have picked up the "give each background character a memorable trait or two to differentiate them" from Druon, who had to wring a novel out of so many characters, many with similar or identical names. Since the tale is one based on real events, it is also hard to predict as it doesn't follow any novel plot structure; and, obviously, there's a lot of backstory and some of it affects "The Iron King" just like the tale of Robert's Rebellion is a foundation for "A Game of Thrones".

I have already dived into book two, "The Strangled Queen", so the first one certainly kept my interest up enough to continue (I tend to not bother with series that don't capture me by the end of book one, Malazan excepted). It's not a hard book to read, the language isn't archaic or anything, but when you're used to Martin's brilliant limited POVs it's a little strange to have the author jump in and out of characters' heads and rely a lot on exposition.

"The Iron King" is also very short when you're used to fantasy doorstoppers - but when it's written the way it is, it really doesn't matter. Sometimes we get a good, detailed and memorable look at a character or location (like Castle Gaillard and its commander), sometimes the author skips ahead in the timeline, explaining what happened in the interim with a few sentences.

For a much better written review of "The Iron King", see Stefan Raets at TOR's review.

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