A Book Spy Review: ‘Conclave’ By Robert Harris

Robert Harris Conclave.jpgWhen the pope’s trending on Twitter, that’s not always a good thing. 

Set in the near future, Robert Harris’ latest novel follows the process of selecting a new pope. As the cardinals come together to choose the next head of their church, drama, games, and sinister workings come into play. 

These might be holy men, but they have ambition and personal goals, too. Some just hide that beneath the surface. 

Cardinal Lomeli, currently the head of the College of Cardinals, serves as the main protagonist. Essentially, he’s in charge of the conclave. And with the pope’s death already trending on social media, he desires a quick, scandal-free selection process, and is eager to address the many rumors surrounding the Vatican. 

In the running for being selected as the next pope are several prominent, well-known, and respected cardinals. One leans conservatively. Another wishes to continue on a more secular path that the previous pope had begun leading the church down before his sudden passing. There’s also an African cardinal who, like many want to see, would be the first black pope.

And then there’s Vincent Benítez, who was named a cardinal by the pope, but in secret. Not much is immediately known about him, but he’s an intriguing character and emerges as a real darkhorse candidate. 

Anytime one hundred and eighteen powerful men come together to make a decision, things will become complicated and heated, especially when they’re all locked in a room until that decision is made. 

For the most part, being present for those conversations is riveting. With a multitude of security measures in place to ensure nobody can listen to what’s being said, Harris creates a scenario that allows readers to feel like they have a VIP seat to one of the most fascinating, private, and important gatherings on earth. 

Each leading candidate has flaws, some greater than others, and each one has their own reasons for wanting to be the next pope. The scandalous parts come when certain skeletons begin walking out of people’s closets, revealing things about their pasts that they wish to keep hidden. Benítez, especially, is an enigma. Little is known about him, making him a wild card.

As Lomeli does his best to keep the meeting running smoothly, he can’t help but wonder about the pope’s death. Between ballots, he attempts to investigate what, if anything, might have actually happened. As the electors continue a series of votes, each round getting them closer to ultimately making their final decision, Harris locks the reader right in the Sistine Chapel with the College of Cardinals, revealing the high-tension, drama-filled moments. 

Harris, obviously, has done his homework. He masterfully explains the entire process to the readers, while at the same time making it fun. That’s no easy feat, and I was impressed with his ability to make the characters come to life. Surprisingly, I even found myself leaning towards one of the potential frontrunners, and would imagine other readers will have their own favorite to become the next apostolic successor of Saint Peter.

The pacing is steady, but not blazing fast. With so much explaining to do, both about the selection process and then the fictional cardinals, that’s to be expected. Instead, Harris relies on drama and suspense to fuel the reader’s interest. However, the plot’s biggest twist seemed unnecessary and more about adding shock value than anything else. Sadly, it nearly took me out of the story, and the reveal itself is both silly and unlikely. 

I wish Harris would have stayed the course he was on during the first three-quarters of the story because I was hooked during those pages. Instead, he tried a Dan Brown-like twist that didn’t work, didn’t make sense, and didn’t seem at all possible.

Book Details

Author: Robert Harris
Pages: 304 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0451493443
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: November 22, 2016 (Order Now!)

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