When I first read Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, I didn’t even know there were seven books. I read the first six, which told of the destruction of the Capet dynasty and ended with the death of Robert of Artois, a prime mover of events. But Druon still had one more tale of incompetent royalty to tell, that of King John II, the third Valois king.
The entire novel is written as a monologue by the Cardinal of Périgord, who tells the tale as he travels to try to mediate peace between King John and Edward, Prince of England. The Cardinal is a sharp old man with many a sarcastic observation to make to his audience, his nephew. King John is actually in captivity to the English, and the cardinal’s story is about how this situation came to be.
Unfortunately, I found this change of narrative style to be irritating, uninterrupted as it is by anything except references to arrivals, changes of horse, and other details of the journey. Although the story he has to tell is certainly interesting—about how the king threw away certain victory in battle because of his own stubbornness and incompetency, and about how he alienated his allies by reneging on deals in order to give honors to his favorite—the narrative style just seems too artificial.
In The Accursed Kings, though, Druon draws a devastating portrait of how a series of bad monarchs brought France down within a few years during the 14th century, from the greatest nation in the world to an impoverished, poorly run country that was considerably smaller.