Normally I love historical fiction, but this book topped the charts for me. The 9th century is not a familiar time period to most people but the Cross integrates all of her research in a way that makes the time period come alive for her readers. She also does not hold back in her depictions of gender roles which are really at the heart of the novel. Cross really highlights how impossible a choice Joan faces, one many women take for granted these days, to make a difference in people's lives or pursue love and a family. To have lived a life as a women in her age would have meant giving up everything that made her who she was: her brains. A difficult thing to give up especially after years of living with the freedom of a man. For centuries brave, pioneering women had to make similar choices to allow modern women to enjoy the freedoms they enjoy today.
Adding to all of this is the secret joy of imagining that a woman could actually have hoodwinked the entire male power structure of the Catholic Church of the time to ascend all the way to the Papacy and truly make a difference in the lives of people in the world. Usually what women learn of their past is a long history of repression, so its a refreshing change to hear such an empowering story. Even though she did have to live as a man. But it is cool to think if this story is true how many other women throughout history managed the same feat on a smaller scale. While even the author admits there isn't too much hard evidence to prove that there was in fact a female Pope during the 9th century in her historical notes, she does clearly highlight sufficient discrepancies in the historical records to show its not impossible, which is enough for some of us dreamers.