The texts center on the existence of a woman who, disguised as a man, was Pope during the 9th century. While this is a legend in real life, McAvoy presents it as true in the Vatican Secret Archives universe, as one of the key texts is the diary of Pope Joan herself, which reveals that her tenure ended after she gave birth to her son in public. Another text is the "lost" gospel of Saint Salome, which advocates for women having an equal role in the church. Michael, who struggles to keep his relationship with his investigative journalist friend Hana platonic in order to keep his vows, fully understands how much of a game-changer this could be. Opposing him is Lord Pelham, the head of a secret group devoted to suppressing this information. In a series of schemes involving murder, elaborate museum heists, car chases, sabotage, and other skullduggery, Michael and his associates race to outwit Lord Pelham and find a way to bring the books to public attention.
McAvoy's focus on what he imagines would be a message of greater inclusiveness and compassion is at the heart of the narrative. He spices this up with puzzles, action sequences, technological wizardry, and passionate self-discovery from a key villain. The result is a clever, uplifting, and detailed imagining of what could be regarding his historical legend.
Takeaway: Hopeful, fastidiously researched thriller of lost religious texts and secrets.
Comparable Titles: John Lyman’s God’s Lions series, John I. Rigoli and Diane Cummings’s The Mystery of Julia Episcopa.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B+
Always eager to read the work of Gary McAvoy, I gladly accepted this ARC, the latest in the Vatican Secret Archive series. The story pulls on yet another aspect of early Christianity that is sure to rock the modern Christian world. McAvoy writes not only to educate on these revelations, but is able to produce a thriller that holds up against many of the other authors in the genre. McAvoy’s book provides some strong arguments for the inclusion of these newly unearthed views, which adds a subtle political element to the larger Vatican reaction. McAvoy’s ability to mix fact and fiction is second to none, forcing the reader to posit what might be truth and where the fabrication commences. Another great piece in this strong series with a gripping final few chapters.
While visiting a friend in the English countryside, Father Michael Dominic makes an unusual discovery when he comes across an old riddle that points to an ancient church. When Father Dominic and his entourage discover the cryptic diary of an old figure long thought to be a fallacy in the Catholic world, they are stunned. This is only further exacerbated when the 1st century Gospel found alongside it reveals new thoughts long buried by early biblical scribes. The diary of Pope Joan, long-thought a 9th century rumour, explores a voice for women that was far from common (or permitted) at the time. The purported Gospel of Salome, an early follower of Jesus, shows a completely different perspective for women and the means of understanding sin in its earliest form. Father Dominic and his close friend, sharp-witted journalist Hana Sinclair, know that they have something intense on their hands now. They are sure it will also cause many waves should it see the light of day.
When news of the discovery makes its way to Lord Lucius Pelham, a powerful Englishman with numerous connections, the concern over the documents increases. Lord Pelham leads a secret group within the Catholic Church, the Order of Papal Guardians, and vows to ensure neither of these relics see the light of day, promising he will stop at nothing to have them destroyed. When a local vicar is found murdered, Detective Inspector Grace Dempsey finds herself on the scene to explore what’s happened. Father Dominic and his entourage are questioned, as they were on site, though they are soon cleared by DI Dempsey. Still, it is a warning in an ongoing game of cat and mouse, as they return with the relics to the Vatican, in hopes of showing the current pontiff.
As Pope Ignatius learns of the diary and gospel document, he is deeply concerned. He knows that his time is short and hopes to shape his legacy, but is also not sure how the Church will handle the news of Pope Joan’s existence and what the Gospel of Salome might mean for future teachings. Father Dominic can only imagine that it is burden that could have heavy consequences.
While Lord Pelham seeks to capture the two relics and see one of Father Dominic’s close friends framed for murder, he will have to do more than simply wish it into being. DI Dempsey is aware of Pelham’s antics and history for meddling, using his powerful connections to get what he desires. Pope Ignatius must also decide how to handle the news of the diary and Gospel, as well as what it means for the future of the Church. Whatever he decides, there will be those on both sides of the argument sure to press him to turn their way. All the while, Father Dominic has an epiphany of his own involving Hana Sinclair, something that has been brewing for a while. All this, with a pending political cloud looming over the Holy See, which could change its perspective significantly. Gary McAvoy pulls the reader into a handful of poignant moments in the series, sure to intrigue those who have followed along from the very beginning.
The detailed writing of Gary McAvoy makes this series and the larger group of books related to Father Michael Dominic not only a joy to read, but provides numerous points of educational insight. While the books are deeply rooted in Christian history and the role played by the Catholic Church, they are not meant to inculcate the reader into believing a set of views espoused by the author. Rather, they seek to provide moments of thought as McAvoy hopes to leave the reader with some introspection.
McAvoy offers the reader a strong narrative foundation, permitting them to follow the story with relative ease. There is a mixture of action and education woven into each page, as things progress and the reader is highly entertained. Within the narrative is a building, not only of the subject matter at hand, but the connections between the characters and role of the Church in society. The characters, many of whom have been around for numerous books, help shape the story as well. Some work to build the thriller angle, while others push a deeper religious perspective, both of which are essential to better understand the book and the series, The Dominic-Sinclair connection, which has been a matter of some interest to series fans, gets a lot of time as well, though some of it more subtly than might be wanted. This enriching of the larger story can be appreciated by those who have a firm grasp of the series. Plot twists emerge and build on one another with ease. McAvoy has long been known to add moments of action and religious curiosity, both of which fuel the plot developments and keep the story from becoming too predictable. There is a strong sense of something extreme coming in the near future, which I am sure McAvoy has been planning for a few novels, I cannot wait to see how the cliffhanger at the end will play into the next novel and what role Father Michael Dominic might have moving forward.
Kudos, Mr. McAvoy, for another chilling thriller. I love your views, your insights, and your ability to grip the reader so effectively.