Oh, and this cover scene is actually in the book.

Several months ago, I met author Charles Gannon at Capclave, and he asked me to review his 1632 series book, 1635: The Papal Stakes. It picks up the Spain/Italy/Church thread that I detailed in another post, but I hadn’t read it when I met him so I didn’t really know what it was about.

Now, the reason he requested me to review his book is because of some credentials I have in regards to both the Catholic Church and the historical period. I have a very in-depth formal education in Catholic theology, philosophy, and history, and at least half of the work I do is with Catholic authors. Gannon was hoping that I could give a favorable review that would interest the Catholic audience I deal with, due to the subject matter of the book.

Note: This review was not commissioned or supported in any way by either Charles Gannon or his publisher, Baen Books, including through review or gift copies, or discounts of any kind. My conclusions are my own.

As is my normal habit, I’ll cover the negative stuff first . . . but, to be honest, I had to reach a bit for it. This was a well-written, well-researched book. The only historical error I found (and though I’m hardly an expert, I am familiar with the period) was a reference to pentagrams and witchcraft, an anachronism we’re used to today since the two go together like crosses and Christianity. (Pentagrams didn’t gain that association until after the 17th century, however.) That is such a minor error as to be nitpicking. I’ve found many more mistakes in the rest of the series.

In terms of writing, there were two awkward moments that stood out to me, both having to do with infodumping. The first was a rather top-heavy discussion of pepperbox revolvers in Chapter 17, and the other was an “As you know, Bob” conversation in Chapter 37. It was also extremely unclear what language was being used in the Garden Room scenes; technically, it should have been Latin, but many comments make it seem like it was taking place simultaneously in Italian and English.

But aside from an extremely minor, blink-and-miss-it continuity error, that was it. Honestly, I’m reaching to find problems with the book on a technical point. This was the most well-written book in the entire 1632 series, and it was a genuine joy to read. From the very first page, I found myself drawn in with both new and old characters, fascinating new events and inventions, and truly excellent dialog that reflected each character’s nationality and upbringing through their word choices.

The interchanging action sequences in the climax — something that is much harder to do than it looks — were also perfectly balanced. To say that I want to see these sequences on film is not an exaggeration. We’ve had Hollywood-style commando tactics in the series before, as it is a tactic that works very well for the outnumbered but better-equipped USE forces, but this time it felt far more real. Part of that was because the Spanish have adapted and prepared for commando tactics, which meant that the USE forces had to up the ante.

Gannon succeeds with this beautifully. I’ve written about this sort of thing before: if you want to show someone truly succeeding, you don’t show them alongside someone who isn’t good at it. You compare them to someone who is good, and then demonstrate how your hero succeeds anyway. It’s a complex yet subtle storytelling technique, and this book serves as an excellent example of how to do it.

But even that wasn’t really what kept me on the edge of my seat, almost literally. (I was actually only halfway to the edge of my seat, but still.) I found the Catholic stuff completely riveting. At one point, Pope Urban VIII — while in hiding from the forces of Cardinal Borja! — orders the uptime Mazzare and the downtime Wadding to have a formalized debate. At stake: the very future of the Christian world.

Did I find it riveting because I’m a Catholic? In part. Because of my training in theology? That certainly helped. Because of my training in history? Bingo.

The importance of Christianity to the history of Europe — a place that was once synonymous with the word “Christendom” — cannot be underestimated. The 17th century in particular was a time when Christianity and religion in general were at a crossroads. This book takes place a little over a hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, and a little under a hundred years before the Enlightenment. Historically, it was a perilous time, and even though religion was often used more as an excuse than anything else, the very fact that it was used as an excuse shows how immensely important people considered their beliefs in the course of secular activity.

Gannon does an excellent job building on Andrew Dennis’ previous two books, which had laid the groundwork for explaining and exploring a very different age, even from the perspective of devout Christians today. It is a world without the separation of church and state; it is a world where many believe that state is superior to church, and that even the Pope must bow to princes. And so Pope Urban, troubled by future history and how things have changed with this new timeline, must figure out how he must lead the Roman Catholic Church.

I said the stakes were the future of the Christian world. I want to underscore that, even if I’m belaboring the point a bit, simply because the period is so different from today. Every bit of Europe and a little bit more was the Christian world. We’re not talking about changes in individual churches and what sermons get preached. We’re not talking about mere academics. We’re talking about the motivations of kings.

The debate begins in Chapter 27, as Pope Urban charges Mazzare (a 20th century American parish priest) and Wadding (a 17th century Irish Franciscan priest) with the task of determining what comes next. Do the Church documents Mazzare brought back in time with him have any bearing on the present day? Is religious toleration an important thing to adopt in the 17th century, or is it at best an idea for a future age? Are the Americans’ presence in the 1630s the result of a new plan by Satan, bent on leading the Church astray?

And, even if all of that is settled, what of the question of where the Pope should go? He is hunted by the forces of Spain, which sees itself as the defender of Catholicism; he is welcomed by the United States of Europe — a majority Protestant nation, a constitutional monarchy in alliance with the Swedish arch-Protestant King Gustav II Adolf. Can the head of the Catholic Church, in a world divided by religious differences, truly accept the help of what is seen as just another Protestant nation? Will it be a gesture of unity, or will it drive more Catholics to believe that Urban has truly become a heretic, as Cardinal Borja claims?

The end of the debate, which takes place in multiple sessions over several chapters, was truly gripping. With the theological, political, and historical elements in play, this felt amazingly real. I won’t spoil the outcome, but the result was nearly perfect and left me truly hungry for more.

I almost don’t care about the rest of the 1632 series now. I want to see where Gannon goes with this arc next. The “main” arc of the 1632verse is based on wars and forging the new nation founded by Germans, Swedes, and uptime Americans; but The Papal Stakes shows that the arc which will have the true and lasting effect on this alternate history is the one dealing with the Church and Spain. Wars shape the moment, but religion and philosophy set the rules. 1636: The Vatican Sanction is due out next year, and I’ll be buying it immediately; the information released so far shows that it’s going to live up to the promises made in The Papal Stakes — not to mention up the ante as Catholic Europe becomes further divided.

So yes, I enjoyed this a bit more than I probably would have if I weren’t Catholic myself; but most of that enjoyment came from being a huge history geek, so you don’t have to be a Catholic to understand and appreciate what’s at stake in the book. As I said, Gannon does an excellent job building on Andrew Dennis’ preparation, and everyone should have all they need to understand The Papal Stakes. I highly recommend the book, and I am planning on picking up Gannon’s next series installment, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, when it comes out in a few months.

A Note for Catholic Mothers
As I am writing this review in large part for a Catholic audience, I also feel obligated to bring up the appropriateness of the content in the series. I spend time at several Catholic events each year, and one of the most frequent requests I get are from mothers, for books they can feel safe giving to their kids.

This series is an adult series. It is, first and foremost, rather violent. (Interestingly, most mothers I talk to, even the supposedly “sheltered homeschooler” mothers, don’t care so much about violence in books.) It also has some sexual content in different books. The first book, 1632, has a few characters having sex, though basically just letting you know that it happened. 1634: The Galileo Affair is slightly more explicit in one scene. The Cannon Law and The Papal Stakes are completely safe in this regard; the only people who seem to be having sex are properly married, and — aside from some occasionally hilarious flirting between spouses — it is handled appropriately. 

So, if you’re a mother looking for a safe book to give your kids, I’d rate this at “college maturity.” Note that maturity is different from reading comprehension. It is up to you to decide whether your kids are up to it. It’s the equivalent of a primetime network TV show, though, and hardly HBO. (In fact, I’d mainly recommend a late high school/early college just so that they have a better historical background to appreciate a very complex alternate history.)