J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: The Iron King.

Another week, another book with “King” in the title. Sorry! The next one I read will be quite a departure from this trend.

Anyway, this weekend I read The Iron King. I came upon it in the bookstore by chance. I didn’t pay it much mind, at first. It was a generic cover*. But then the endorsement at the top caught my eye.

*Yes, sometimes the cover is what attracts me to a book, directly contradicting the old cliche saying to not judge a book by its cover. I freely admit that I do exactly that quite often.

The blurb read like this:

‘This is the original game of thrones’ George R.R. Martin

From the publishers that brought you A Game of Thrones comes the series that inspired George R.R. Martin’s epic work.

“Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”

The Iron King – Philip the Fair – is as cold and silent, as handsome and unblinking as a statue. He governs his realm with an iron hand, but he cannot rule his own family: his sons are weak and their wives adulterous; while his red-blooded daughter Isabella is unhappily married to an English king who prefers the company of men.

A web of scandal, murder and intrigue is weaving itself around the Iron King; but his downfall will come from an unexpected quarter. Bent on the persecution of the rich and powerful Knights Templar, Philip sentences Grand Master Jacques Molay to be burned at the stake, thus drawing down upon himself a curse that will destroy his entire dynasty…

Obviously, like millions of other people, I like Mr. Martin’s work. And the chance to read something that inspires one of your favorite authors is always a fascinating journey to take. So I took the gamble, and picked it up.

Was it up to the the level of hype? I mean, George RR freaking Martin endorsed it on the cover, and wrote the foreword for this edition. Would I really love it if I liked Game of Thrones?

What I liked:

The translation. This might be a cop out, considering that the author had nothing to do with translating his book from French to English. But even the best writer can lose something special when making the jump from one language to another. English is such a complicated language that even the best in other languages can look weird without a good and careful translation.

I often cite Andrzej Sapkowski and his The Witcher series of novels as a good example of how this can happen.I played and enjoyed the computer games based on the novels, so I tried a hand at reading the books. They were really, REALLY awkward to read. Sentences were built in a strange way, and even the tone seemed strangely stiff and formal. It felt like I was in World Literature all over again.

The Iron King, however, has no such issues. It was incredibly simple to read, considering the weight of the story. If you’d told me it was written in English first, I probably would’ve believed you.

The realism. While most of the characters (If not all; I’m no expert on Medieval French history) are real people who lived in 1314 AD,  I’m assuming that not everything in this book is historically factual. It’s embellished where it needs to be embellished, because a good story needs that sometimes.

But regardless of accuracy, it does that one thing that a good story sometimes needs: It follows logic. I’ll explain with a light spoiler. Don’t worry, it’s literally from the first page.

The former Commander of the Knights Templar is being sentenced to die on trumped up charges for political reasons. While he is carted out to the square to be sentenced to death, he imagines some of his knights who are still free might come riding through the crowd to rescue him and his fellows. In other books, maybe he would have been rescued in an epic fight scene. Instead, in this book, he is burned at the stake, and dies horribly. In real life, there’s no way a few guys with swords are going to save a prisoner from an army full of other guys with swords and also bows*. It’s a simple thing, but sometimes hard for readers to swallow. George RR Martin does stuff like this all the time, though (think Ned Stark at the end of Game of Thrones), so I can see the influence.

*the AK-47 of medieval times. Archers were way more important than most regular people give them credit for.

I wonder what he’s planning to do with that scepter of doom.

The history. As I mentioned before, sure, not everything in this book actually happened. But there WAS a King Phillip IV of France. He DID destroy most of the Jewish population and the Knights Templar on bogus reasoning, mostly because he owed both parties money. His sons DID marry two princesses who cheated on them.

A lot of people cite history as a boring subject to read about. But it’s not. It’s just that we so often remove the interesting details from the history to make it easier to absorb, and consequently we lose interest in memorizing dates and names, especially when those names have roman numerals attached. I came away from reading this book feeling like I’d learned a slice of European history that my education glossed over. That made it more than worthwhile to me, and makes me want to read the rest of the books in the series.


What I didn’t like:

The subtlety. The downside of being historically accurate is that you can’t take wild liberties, like George RR Martin can when he makes up whatever he wants to please himself and his fans. There isn’t really a climax to this book at all. All it is is following the affairs of the French court. If there’s a climax at all, it’s basically the King calling the guards on his sons’ wives, and having their lovers executed in gory fashion. Or maybe Jaques Molay getting burned at the stake while the princesses and their lovers have sex in a nearby tower.

It’s like reading Masterpiece Theatre. It’s hard to explain what happens in this book without it sounding boring. It isn’t boring at all, when you actually read it. But the summary, I imagine, looks quite brutal.


The Verdict:

I really, really enjoyed this book, despite it being a radical departure from my usual line of taste. Given the fact that it was both educational AND entertaining, and it makes me want to read the next one, I definitely would say it’s a great book. If I gave out half stars, it would definitely be a 4.5. But since I don’t, I’m just going with ****. It’s awesome, but not memorable enough to be at the top. I suspect, however, that the sequels will be.

If you like historical fiction, and you like George RR Martin, read this book. The endorsement was right, for once!



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