Engaging.... Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case in her work of historical fiction that, in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne for two years. Born in Ingelheim in A.D. 814 to a tyrannical English canon and the once-heathen Saxon he made his wife, Joan shows intelligence and persistence from an early age. One of her two older brothers teaches her to read and write, and her education is furthered by a Greek scholar who instructs her in languages and the classics. Her mother, however, sings her the songs of her pagan gods, creating a dichotomy within her daughter that will last throughout her life. The Greek scholar arranges for the continuation of her education at the palace school of the Lord Bishop of Dorstadt, where she meets the red-haired knight Gerold, who is to become the love of her life. After a savage attack by Norsemen destroys the village, Joan adopts the identity of her older brother, slain in the raid, and makes her way to Fulda, to become the learned scholar and healer Brother John Anglicus. After surviving the plague, Joan goes to Rome, where her wisdom and medical skills gain her entrance into papal circles. Lavishly plotted, the book brims with fairs, weddings and stupendous banquets, famine, plague and brutal battles. Joan is always central to the vivid action as she wars with the two sides of herself, "mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire." Ultimately, though she leads a man's life, Joan dies a woman's death, losing her life in childbirth. In this colorful, richly imagined novel, Cross ably inspires a suspension of disbelief, pulling off the improbable feat of writing a romance starring a pregnant pope.
Cross's first novel, based on the life of the controversial historical figure Pope Joan, is a fascinating and moving account of a woman's determination to learn despite the opposition of family and society. Born in 9th-century Frankland, Joan demonstrates her brilliance early but must hide her learning from her missionary father, who considers the education of women sacrilegious and dangerous. Tutored first by her older brother and then a Greek scholar, Joan eventually secures a place at the schola in Dorstadt. To protect herself after a Viking raid, Joan dons her dead brother's clothing and assumes a man's identity. Suddenly the intelligence that once brought her ridicule and punishment results in respect and authority. From the monastery in Fulda to Vatican politics in Rome, Joan eventually secures the church's highest office. Cross vividly creates the 9th-century world, fraught with dangers from Vikings and Saracens, bloody warfare between brothers for political power, and palace intrigue for political favors. Above all, she brings to life a brilliant, compassionate woman who has to deny her gender to satisfy her desire for learning. Highly recommended. —Kathy Piehl, Mankato State Univ., Minn.
A longstanding tradition has insisted that there was a female Pope in the ninth century. The author's version of that story imagines Joan as the daughter of a village canon. Singled out for tutoring by a wise Greek, she learns quickly, but her father sees her knowledge as an abomination and blocks further progress. She runs away to join her brother at school, but is reviled by fellow students and her schoolmaster alike, even though she has the support of Gerold, the local count. Gerold falls in love with her, so his wife plots to marry her off while he is away; a Viking raid intervenes, however, leaving Joan the sole survivor. Determined never again to be betrayed by being female, she dresses as a man and enters a Benedictine monastery, where her aptitude for learning and healing propels her rapidly into the priesthood. Years pass; Joan makes a remarkable recovery from the plague and decides to go to Rome. There, she saves the life of Pope Sergius, and in her new role as papal physician again meets Gerold, rekindling the spark between them. When Sergius dies, and intrigue leads to the poisoning of his successor, Joan is elected Pope as the people's choice. Together, she and Gerold work to help the poor, but when a flood gives them the opportunity to be truly alone, passion reasserts itself. Joan learns that she is pregnant just as plotters act against her, leaving a bloody finale to be played out on the streets of Rome. No lack of action here, but also not much food for thought. Still, what seems a too facile rendering of a complex story might certainly appeal as light summer reading.
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