Donna Woolfork Cross’s fictionalized account of the life of a woman who lives her adult life as a man and becomes pope in the 9th century A. D. is by turns a page-turner and a bit tedious. At its best in the first half, Woolfork describes a very precocious girl, living in time when girls were little more than chattel and certainly never educated. Learning in secrecy and trying to avoid a brutal, dictatorial father, the young Joan displays courage, loyalty, and ingenuity — traits that will serve her well when she takes on her role as a man and becomes a monk. The book falters in the later half when the plot becomes predictable: Joan’s success will lead to a crisis, which Joan will (almost) always finesse to her credit.
Meticulously researched and cleanly written, Pope Joan will be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good story. Bonus fun if you like early church history, medieval history, in general, and/or if you hate sexism.