According to George R. R. Martin, this book was the inspiration for Game of Thrones. I admit I haven’t actually read or seen Game of Thrones (I know; my bad. I’m not keen on watching the TV series as I find screen violence a lot more disturbing than page violence. And at the moment I’m too lazy to wade through all the books). From what other people have told me though, the appeal of Game of Thrones is the high-octane drama. And The Iron King has drama in spades.
The ‘Iron King’ of the title is Philip IV of France (1268-1314). An absolute monarch, he ruled ruthlessly, grabbing power for himself and placing his relatives on thrones wherever he could. He even arrested Pope Boniface VIII and installed Clement V as a kind of pet pope at Avignon, where he could keep an eye on him.
This cruel and dispassionate prince was concerned with the ideal of the nation. Under his reign France was great and the French wretched.
Philip sought to eliminate all rival powers. He expelled the Jews from France in 1306, and in 1307 attacked the ancient institution of the Knights Templar. After a fierce political struggle, he finally ordered the leaders of the Knights Templar to be publicly burnt at the stake. The execution is supposed to be a demonstration of the Iron King’s strength, but the mood shifts when the Grand Master of the Knights Templar declaims against Philip from the pyre:
The Grand Master’s burning face was turned towards the royal loggia. And the terrible voice cried, “Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!”
The rest of book is concerned with the working out of the curse. It is followed by six other books concerning the fate of Philip’s descendents, the seven books together forming the Accursed Kings sequence.
The main theme of The iron king is power: how to get it, and how to keep it. Some of the characters – the royal family and the aristocracy – are born into it. Others gain it through religion (the pope, cardinals and archbishops), wealth (the Lombard bankers), or their own guile and cunning (courtiers, advisers and politicians). But power doesn’t last forever. When dictators and tyrants seem at their most invincible, they are often at their peak and a fall is not far away. The higher they are, the greater they fall. These falls provide both the drama and the poignancy that gives the story its depth.
The Iron King has compelling characters dealing with high-pressure situations against the backdrop of a richly realised medieval Europe. Feuding factions struggle for power through intrigue, scheming, and sorcery. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.