Saxon: The Pope’s Assassin

Written by Tim Severin
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

In this third instalment of Tim Severin’s Saxon series set at the end of the 8th century, The Pope’s Assassin brings his central character, Sigwulf, who is a servant to Charlemagne, to the snake-pit that is Rome. Ordered to investigate a brutal attack on Pope Leo, Sigwulf soon finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy to dethrone Leo and replace him with a more compliant pontiff. But who is involved in this conspiracy? Roman mafia-type families, the Byzantine Emperor and even Sigwulf’s own master are some of the many and varied bunch of suspects. With enemies around literally every corner, Sigwulf needs to draw on every ounce of skill and strength he possesses to get to the bottom of who is trying to kill the pope.

The appeal of The Pope’s Assassin lies in the relative unfamiliarity of its setting. A Rome that smells of corruption and has decadent and crooked families jostling for control at its very centre is skilfully created. Sigwulf’s extended sojourn in the land of the Avar people is also refreshingly new and interesting. However, the main plot of The Pope’s Assassin doesn’t quite manage to sustain itself right through the novel, losing steam and interest before its final exposition. The characterisation is also somewhat inconsistent, with few of the characters standing out from the generic crowds. With Sigwulf, however, Tim Severin has created a complex main character who is far from a super spy and one that transcends the limitations of the novel’s plot. In addition, The Pope’s Assassin always feels authentic and well-researched without being text-book dry.