The pope is dead... and 117 cardinals are about to seclude themselves in the conclave to elect a new pope. No, make that 118. There are 4 favourites, but as the saying goes: Who goes into the conclave as pope, comes out a cardinal.
Although it's mostly talk and introspection, Harris manages to keep one yearning for more. Especially his point-of-view character Lomeli who presides the conclave is a surprisingly relatable protagonist, with doubts and a crisis of faith that's heart-felt, especially the conflict between faith in Christ and faith in the institution of the Catholic Church. I think that's an important difference because lots of people have lost faith in the Church but not necessarily in God or Christianity. Unfortunately, for some officials that's often the same thing and those people, now looking for a new spiritual home, are left adrift, ripe for the picking for demagogues with unsavoury goals hidden within sweet promises.
In the end it's not so much a story about the election of a new pope but of a man regaining his own faith. That's where this novel very much succeeds. As it does in portraying a range of characters, from super-progressive, to manipulative, ambitious, world-weary, some deeply flawed, others shaped by circumstances.
However, the plot itself doesn't hold many surprises and much is left unsolved (the events in the outside world, the old pope's last weeks etc), but I imagine that's due to the constraints of the conclave's seclusion which doesn't lend itself to starting investigations. Still, I was captivated throughout but mainly to see if my predictions were right (and they were, every one of them), rather than because of unforeseen twists and turns. And I could have lived with that because it's still a gripping tale of introspection and psychology. But the final twist (especially since it's obvious from a mile away) was a bit too much and went beyond credibility, even more so in modern times. I think that Harris wanted to add something unique into his story - and I agree that at some point such a development will and has to come to pass. But the way this twist was introduced doesn't necessarily mean progress for the Church itself as long as an agenda that speaks of lasting and fundamental change within the structure of the Church isn't mentionned. And let's face it, the respective character and the story itself didn't need this. So, somehow, I can't help but think of this twist as some kind of trendy publicity stunt, and an unnecessary one at that, mind you.
Therefore, the ending did put a bit of a dampener on my enjoyment of this novel - but it's still a good and suspenseful tale.