There’s this only half-joking thought I’ve often stated in regards to book writing that, if you’re stuck, just write the characters fighting a bunch of crazy bikers. This is a lesson I learned from The Survivalist. And I saw something like that in a place I didn’t expect.
Robert Harris’ Conclave is the tale of a papal succession by a well-known author who’s written the alternate history classic Fatherland. He does not have the cardinals face off against crazy bikers. But he does have them encounter what seems like everything else. The writing itself is often good, and certainly Harris’ skill is on display. The setup of the book is excellent, save for a contrivance where a secret cardinal manages to slip into the conclave in spite of historical precedent.
…And then the plot goes off the rails into more and more melodrama. One of the papabili is felled by baby mama drama. Then another, who steered the baby mama into the Vatican to crush his rival, has his machinations uncovered and his candidacy sputters. Then the main character finds the papal equivalent of Regina George’s Burn Book and metaphorical chaos happens. Then there’s a terror attack outside the chapel (really) and literal chaos happens.
With all of the rivals having shot themselves in the foot (and the book has gotten to the point where a papabili cardinal pulling a Plaxico Burress wouldn’t be surprising), Mr. Sneaky Cardinal then becomes pope. Then in the final twist, it turns out that the new pope was born a girl , mixing the Pope Joan legend with the likes of such highbrow epics as Fate Stay/Night and Sleepaway Camp. The book ends with Pope
Joan Angela Saber I Innocent XIV taking the throne.
I mean no transphobia, and think that you could make a perfectly tasteful, good, and profound novel with that (and its discovery) as the premise. But as the biggest swerve in a book full of them, it still comes across as bizarre and tacky. Even if the concept is quite doable, the execution here falls flat.
In fact, as another review in the conservative Catholic World Report has noted, Harris’ sources in the acknowledgements are a little questionable. Imagine a military novel where the sources are well-intentioned and good-hearted but obviously slanted antiwar activists and axe-grinding Pentagon Reformers, and you can get an idea for how skewed this is (even if I agree with a lot of it on the merits as a nonreligious descendant of Lutherans).
This isn’t the equivalent of one of the worst popes ever. But it isn’t one of the best either.