The Return of the Iron King

Richard Lee

‘It has always been my belief,’ wrote George R.R. Martin in his Not a Blog, ‘that epic fantasy and historical fiction are sisters under the skin, as I have said in many an interview.’

He goes on to list historical fiction books by authors he clearly knows and enjoys, pausing to give particular mention to Nigel Tranter (because he carried on writing into his nineties?) and the ‘incomparable’ Bernard Cornwell.

But this is all by way of setting the stage for the real point of the post, which is to introduce to his followers one of the towering twentieth century French masters of historical fiction, Maurice Druon.

16117911The Accursed Kings (Les Rois Maudits), he says, are ‘an amazing seven-volume series about King Philip IV of France, his sons and daughters, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, [and] the roots of the Hundred Years War’. And new editions are coming out in the UK with his forewords, and with this quote on the covers: ‘This is the Original Game of Thrones.’

This fascinates me in a number of ways.

Firstly, hooray: I love out-of-print historical fiction getting rediscovered and published to a new audience. Published well, it seems, too. On goodreads there are 1500 ratings of the book averaging 4.22 stars out of 5. On Amazon, so far, 30, averaging 4 stars. Goodreads does have other language editions, and not all the reviews are new – but a huge number of the reviewers do mention GRRM. So far so good, though I expect the averages to dip as the less ‘groupie’ GRRM fans read, and find the writing style very different from their hero’s.

images-53Secondly, hooray: I love it when an author uses his influence to beat down the artificial barriers that readers sometimes build for themselves. Reading is about a relationship with an author (or book) and you can have very different relationships. You can equally enjoy the wholesome hobbitiness of Tolkien and the secular Tyrion-ness of GRRM. You can enjoy stuffy Ivanhoe and rollicking Flashman without making any undue statement about your personality or ‘taste’.

Thirdly, hooray: I love the ‘sisters under the skin’ idea. At least as far as it goes. I think there is a very fine kind of historical fiction that plays fast and loose with historical fact, and toys with the knowledge and suspension of disbelief in the reader. The Man in the Iron Mask and The Scarlet Pimpernel may be too ‘costume’ for some tastes now, but I think that Hornblower and Sharpe will seem more costume in due course: and the point with all of them is that story is the thing. History is one factor, but it is subsidiary to larger-than-life heroes. Whether GRRM would see Pat Barker’s Ghost Road, or Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie as ‘sisters’ is a different matter.

Finally, boo: I think there is a struggle between fantasy and historical fiction for audience, and I think fantasy is beginning to win again. I hope GRRM’s well-meant recommendation of a long out-of-print Frenchman doesn’t stop those readers who will inevitably dislike it from trying historical fiction again. But I fear it may.


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