Top critical review
A Good but not Great sequel
on 11 July 2014
This is the second book in Maurice Druon's historical series, "The Accursed Kings". It starts just after the death of Philippe IV, the main character of first book, "The Iron King", and covers the first six months of his successor, Louis X, who ruled for barely eighteen months. After a fast-moving first book filled with dramatic incidents, the second book, "The Strangled Queen" has a slower pace and is more concerned with manoeuvrings for power and influence in the French Kingdom and Papacy. It consists of three parts, each with a leading character, although several minor themes run through the whole book.
The first part concerns Marguerite of Burgundy, the wife of Louis who should have the position of queen but is suffering strict and comfortless imprisonment because of her earlier adultery. In the first book, she was seen as a beautiful and sensuous who, with her sister, engaged in affairs with two brothers who were executed for their crime. After a year in prison, Marguerite has lost much of her beauty but has become cunning and selfish. Once she learns of Philippe's death, she wants freedom but not at any price and she stands in the way of Louis remarrying by her obstinacy in giving him grounds for annulment. Louis is obsessed with the idea of marriage to a beautiful Neapolitan princess Clémence, unlike Marguerite in looks and in temperament.
In the second part, Louis who is very weak in comparison to his dominating father and emotionally unstable, shows himself unable to be the king his father was and falls under the control of his uncle Charles of Valois. Charles institutes a noble-led reaction to the centralising tendencies of his dead brother Philippe and seeks the marginalisation of Philippe's low-born ministers. His incompetence leads to the emptying of the Treasury in a matter of months. The only sensible members of the Royal family are Louis' brother, another Philippe, and their uncle Louis of Evreux, but they are overruled. Much of this part deals with the negotiations for princess Clémence to marry Louis and to travel to France. This requires the annulment of Louis' first marriage, and the French court is frustrated in its attempts to elect a Pope who could do this.
In the third part, the crisis in the kingdom worsens and there is a major famine, the result of maladministration as much as the poor harvest. This is blamed on Philippe IV's principal minister, Marigny who Charles of Valois hates. Marigny, the one person who could deal with the crisis, is executed after a rigged trial. Although Marguerite is at last willing to give Louis the legal grounds for an annulment, it is too late and she is strangled in her prison.
Possibly because the novel proceeds more through dialogue than action, its dialogue becomes more important and can seem a little lifeless and too full of old-fashioned words, possibly related to the translation. This said, if you are going to continue with the Accursed Kings series, it is necessary to read this second book in sequence, as the quality of later ones does improve.
As for the first book, "The Strangled Queen" has misleading comments in the jacket likening it to George Martin's "Game of Thrones" and a foreword by Martin claiming to see no real difference between his fantasy adventure and Druon's historical narrative. Don't be influenced or put off by these comments, but read this book for its own merits