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Books like this are rare. The Pope Who Would Be King is one of the few publications that has made me commit a mortal sin—that of envy. I wish I could tell a story in such a colorful and lively way. Unlike David Kertzer’s tendentious works on Pius XI and Mussolini, I found myself enjoying this one, at least until I read the epilogue.

Pope Pius IX, or Pio Nono, ­usually gets bad press. My own professor of church history claimed that Pius’s epileptic seizures had made him “insane.” Systematic theologians vilify him as the incarnation of evil because he stuck that eternal thorn into the Catholic mind, the dogma of papal infallibility. Such depictions are hardly fair and hardly ever take into account recent research. Giacomo Martina has done especially important work in refuting fairy tales about the late pontiff. It is to Martina’s untranslated biography of Pius that Kertzer owes most of his narrative.

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