Pope Joan: Donna Woolfolk Cross

★★★

I’d been keen to read this novel for over a year, so it felt like destiny when I spotted it in my local second-hand bookshop. The shadowy figure of Pope Joan has intrigued me ever since I first heard about her at university: the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest, most sacred position early medieval Europe could offer, before being unmasked when she gave birth to a child. Cross’s novel, set in the 9th century when Europe was still being forged out of a struggling mass of tiny princedoms and counties, takes in the wild snowy forests of the north, Rome’s faded glory, battles, Viking attacks and a protagonist who had the potential to be one of the most gripping characters I’ve read about for a long time. But unfortunately it never quite gelled into a satisfying whole.

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