Cross has taken a long-standing legend of a female Pope and spun a novel out of it. There are a variety of problems with what she did. First, she made the time period gratuitously brutal, adding an ahistorical Viking invasion just to off the family that Joan lived with while at the Schola, including Richild (wife of Gerold, who is in love with Joan and was thinking of divorcing his wife to hook up officially with Joan, despite having kids with Richild), who takes advantage of Gerold's absence to marry Joan off, blackmailing a cleric to override his objections. Nice. To be fair, Gerold's daughter isn't murdered, just gang-raped on the church altar and then dragged off to Vikingland.
Second, Gerold. The original legend has Joan going to Athens dressed as a boy with her cleric "friend", becoming learned and eventually elevated to Pope, but still hanging with the "friend" and eventually having his baby and dying. Cross has a series of clerics interested in Joan's mind, but she never does go to Athens (unless I skimmed that bit). And her "friend" is Gerold and it was a one-night/day/whatever during a flood hookup.
I had a few issues with the depiction of Joan. Joan's yet another of these I-hate-women female characters who can only get along with men but primarily hide and geek out with whatever their drug of choice is (in this case, secular manuscripts likely to get her into hot water theologically). Joan's also a bit of a Mary Sue, altho that kinda works here, because it feels like hagiography. I would have been happiest if Joan had been asexual, or if Joan had fully identified as male (F2M in modern lingo). I scratched my head a lot at the idea that she could so despise her own sex/gender, be so generally uninterested in all the men around her except as companions and that in the most limited way, and yet actually get it on with Gerold. *shrug*
Mind you, no one seems to believe this legend is true, altho given some of the turmoil, I absolutely would be willing to believe _someone_ successfully pulled off some crossdressing and wasn't discovered until after they were dead.
But I'm betting the church was complicit, and we'll never hear about those women popes.
This particular pope legend looks just a little too wacky for me, either in its original form or in this novel. The novelist did, however, write in such a way that the book reads very, very, very fast.
And a good thing, too. I wouldn't have the tolerance for this kind of second wave feminist bullshit otherwise.