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By Steve Berry

Ballantine, June 2005 ($24.95)
ISBN: 0-345-47613-1

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

In 1917, three Portuguese children had visions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, in which she entrusted them with three secrets.The first two, fairly innocous and straightforward, were revealed soon after the visitations stopped. The third remained cloaked in secrecy by the Vatican until 2000, when Pope John Paul II released the text.That secret seems to be a complex metaphor that makes little sense, leading many to wonder if there is more to the message that is still being concealed, perhaps even something that could rock the very foundations of the Catholic Church.

Berry took this premise and built a story of intrigue, suspense, treachery and faith that is inevitably being compared to Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE. This book was actually written in 1998, however, and was rejected by several publishers because "the world wasn't interested in that kind of story." After the success of Berry's THE AMBER ROOM and THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, Berry brought this novel out of the drawer and had no trouble getting it published.

The story unfolds in "the present day" some time after the death of John Paul and the election of the German Pope Clement XV.Clement was supposed to have been a "caretaker" Pope, an older man expected to keep the status quo while a younger, more dynamic cardinal builds support to win the next election. Clement has other plans, though, and begins making changes that make many in the Vatican community nervous. Cardinal Valendrea is Clement's chief opponent, a traditionalist who wants to return the Church to its pre-Vatican II form. Valendrea and his cronies are nasty, ambitious, ruthless, bringing to mind the machinations of Medieval times. Clement's staunchest support is his secretary, Colin Michener, a priest troubled by Clement's recent odd behavior and obsession with the third secret of Fatima, as well as by the reappearance of a woman he'd loved and lost when he was young. Clement sends Michener on a mysterious errand to Romania, and the priest and his journalist lady love become entangled in a web of deceit, danger, murder, and a mystery that threatens to change the world as they know it.

Berry takes us into the fascinating world of the Vatican secret archives and gives us a front row seat as the Church goes through the elaborate, complex process of electing a new pope.His research is thorough, his writing is excellent, his portrayal of the inner workings of the Vatican plausible.The more sordid elements of these workings are sure to cause controversy. I would not be at all surprised if this novel follows the path of THE DA VINCI CODE in that respect.To my mind, it is the better of the two books by far.

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