WHEN THE HAPLESS TEEN protagonist Roberto is crowned Pope Hadrian and finds himself dropped into a web of shadows worthy of an Escher painting, oily backstabbers and greedy nobles come out of the woodwork to puppeteer him to their own ends. As I plowed through John Oakes's new alternate-history adventure, Death Pope's deceptively dry beginning turned out to be the first clues that this novel would prove to be a very highly-researched and smartly-written thriller.
The characterization, as is customary of Oakes' novels, is top-notch. Every character is a well-realized human unto himself, making the Vatican seem to crawl with activity. The three characters closest to the reader, Roberto, Petruccio, and Cosimo, begin the book as a trio of carefree Italian boys that could have stepped straight off the pages of Romeo and Juliet; their personalities made me feel as if I were reading a novel decades if not centuries older than their author.
A few of the older characters, like members of Roberto's new papal cabinet, are a bit interchangeable, but the Italian names are so colorful that they stand out well and it's easy to overlook.
The Vatican itself is a Hogwarts of detailed passageways, choked with every opportunity to stage an interesting scene--honestly, I never knew it was so expansive and easy to get lost in. It's a testament to Oakes's talent that I feel like I've finally been properly introduced to it, even after years of reading Dan Brown.
Where DEATH POPE really shines is the dialogue scenes. While Oakes's previous outing THE RIGHT KIND OF STUPID was no slouch in the quality department, DP's dramatic scenes were a shocking step up in maturity and complexity. Besides the obvious point that Oakes has had more practice, I point a finger directly at the amped-up authenticity: where TRKOS was made of stoner coming-of-age humor and barroom conversation, DP absolutely gleams with intricate political thumb-wrestling and the cadence of 16th century speech. I have absolutely no complaints here--like Martin's books, DP said, "Here comes the airplane!" and spoon-fed me a helping of Mafia diplomacy I didn't even know I wanted. Oakes must have spent a lot of late nights poring over ecclesiastical references and protocol documentation.
I won't spoil the catalyst that finally switches the story into high gear, but it culminates in a caper sequence that'll have any fan of Tarantino cheering and cackling like I did. I thought the book ended rather abruptly--it feels like the pilot episode of an HBO series--but if Oakes has his way, this won't be the last one, and I'm very much looking forward to the rest of the series.