Pope Joan, by Donna Cross
This novel tells the story of the only woman ever to have been Pope. It starts with her birth to an English father and a Saxon mother, and follows her through long years where education was denied to her, through her seizing of the opportunity to seize her dreams of education by impersonating her brother after he is killed by a Viking raid, and her long struggles to find a place where she belongs, and ultimately to her election as Pope and her death and the revelation of her true gender two years after her ascension to the position.
I found this to be a fascinating, wonderful book. The characterization was interesting, even where I did not particularly like the character, and nothing ever felt forced or unnatural in any of the characters. I also learned quite a lot about how the Papacy and the Christian church worked back in the dark age, as well as about education, the place of women, and medicine in that period. All the time that I was learning, however, I never felt I was being lectured to, or that the author had wandered off on a tangent to the harm of the story being told. I really enjoyed this book. Only one thing that I found to quibble about: There was once scene near the beginning of the book, the scene where we first meet the father and son who will ultimately be Joan's nemesis. The reader is dropped into that scene without explanation, we witness a grisly death -- of who and for what I reason I still do not know -- and then we see no more of these characters until the last third of the book. I never did figure out exactly what happened in that scene and why. Political intrigue of some sort, clearly, by the reasoning was never clear. That one scene I found distracted from the story by its jarring appearance out of nowhere and by its lack of clarity. Otherwise, however, this story was masterfully told. I would give this book a 4.5.