The Papal Stakes is mostly about various attempts to rescue Frank Stone and his wife. It is also about pope Urban trying to decide whether he wants to accept the help of the USE. In addition, we have a great deal of debate on whether or not Grantville is part of some vast plot conceived by Satan. (The debate is not very interesting or exciting however.)
There is also a great deal of fan service, and several of the formerly strong female characters seem to lose about twenty I.Q. points each during the course of the story. (In other words, I don’t like what Gannon did with their characterization. I also didn’t really like the characterization of the male characters, who appear to have gained several overbearing machismo points.)
Let me explain what I mean by fan service. The opening scene features Sharon leaning over a radio operator, her boobs pressing into his back. I was extremely underwhelmed by this scene and the way she was described. Gannon tends to describe female characters in an overtly sexualized manner that made me extremely uncomfortable. As another example, a guard is making frequent visits as a chance to ogle Giovanna. Frank does not blame the guy, as his wife is very sexy. There are also some really awkward jokes about how “loud” Giovanna and Frank are. Sharon and Ruy, the other pair of romantic leads also get a great deal of sex jokes. (Which I might have been okay with if the jokes were actually funny and not detrimental to the narrative.)
This book tries very hard to be funny when it should be serious. When it tries to be serious, it is kind of boring. There is a point where characters speak in pig Latin to disguise their conversation, and the Wrecking Crew are foiled by a sudden bout of complete incompetence. There is an attempt to escape foiled by someone leaving a soup trail. There are also some really horrible written accents and Frank Stone writing Lord of the Rings fan fiction that is actually some kind of code or something.
The Papal Stakes is not one of the better books in the series. It falls flat in many respects and doesn’t really advance the overall plot very much. I can only recommend this book if you are a diehard fan of the series, or if you are the type of person who has to read every book for completeness sake. (I would say that you wouldn’t be missing very much by not reading it at all.)