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By definition, a papal conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a pope. It has been the procedure for choosing a pope for a thousand years, the oldest method for picking the leader of an institution.

In CONCLAVE, his newest novel, Robert Harris takes readers on a fictionalized clandestine visit behind closed doors to witness a sacramental selection process that has been kept secret to the outside world for centuries. Behind locked doors in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome, 118 cardinals are gathered to elect a new pope in the wake of the sudden passing of the most recent Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Harris...has a whopper of a surprise in store for the finale, which helps to make CONCLAVE one of his most intelligent and socially relevant novels to date."

You may be thinking: How interesting can it be to read about a bunch of cardinals sitting around trying to figure out who will be the next pope? If you thought that such a premise lacked intrigue and colorful characters, you would be sadly mistaken. The simple fact that this is an international gathering adds enough interest to keep the reader's attention. Also, this may be an ancient ritual, but it is indeed impacted by the modern world, and the opportunity to go a different direction and potentially select a pope of color is a very real possibility.

The majority of the action in CONCLAVE is seen through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli. In addition to being part of the selection process --- as well as a potential candidate for the papal throne --- he is the dean of cardinals and presides over the election. Lomeli claims throughout to have no personal desire for the position and indicates that he is voting for another cardinal. However, it would be remiss to think that anyone in the role of cardinal did not occasionally dream of being pope one day.

Just as the cardinals are gathering in Vatican City and preparing to cast their votes, their world is turned somewhat upside down. The reason for this is the appearance of an unknown cardinal: Cardinal Benitez, a Filipino who had been named archbishop of Baghdad by the recently departed pope. There are many among the 118 cardinals who reject Benitez outright and others who are just uncomfortable about his surprise drop-in and unsure how to include him. Of course, his presence is no accident, and Robert Harris will most assuredly build him into the plot in dramatic fashion.

The voting begins, and it is ironic to find no shortage of backstabbing, electioneering and outright deceit. Sounds like a recent presidential election we recently went through! Lomeli attempts to keep things in order but finds the need to insert his authority about a few contending cardinals and ultimately gets them knocked out of consideration. Of course, Lomeli's actions put him higher up the ballot, and it will be up to the reader to decide if this is by chance or something he plotted to do all along.

As the action heats up at the conclave, there is a rash of violent acts occurring around the globe that may be a result of the pope's death and the failure of the cardinals to find a quick successor. The book is full of suspense, and the characters become as real as contestants on a reality show. Harris also has a whopper of a surprise in store for the finale, which helps to make CONCLAVE one of his most intelligent and socially relevant novels to date.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 23, 2016

by Robert Harris

  • Publication Date: July 25, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101972904
  • ISBN-13: 9781101972908