The Vacant Seat

Fiction - Religious Theme
332 Pages
Reviewed on 06/10/2023
Buy on Amazon

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    Book Review

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite

The Vacant Seat is a work of fiction in the romantic suspense, espionage, and mystery subgenres. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience and was penned by author C.J. Toca. In this highly engaging work filled with conspiracy, long-buried secrets, historical mysteries, and contemporary puzzles, we follow protagonist Stefania DiMaggio, a Brazilian journalist seeking a career-shifting scoop. Her first assignment seems dull and harmless and is made all the more annoying by the tag-along hobbyist duke, Thomas Houghton. But as the pair begin to unpick what seems like a simple story, the body counts in their wake rise, and a huge conspiracy begins to glimmer beneath the surface they’re digging into.

Author C.J. Toca has developed a sensational work of mystery, suspense, and intrigue in this multi-layered novel. I was most impressed by the way the chapter structure and storytelling were crafted to take us to different destinations with the wider ensemble cast and shift the different perspectives so that we get a fully formed story where we can piece a lot of clues together for ourselves. Stefania and Thomas make an interesting central pairing for the tale as neither of them is totally clean-cut in their own secrets, intentions, and goals, and their burgeoning romance is laced with just as much tension as the wider plot. Toca ensures that there’s plenty of emotional narrative skill to keep us deeply invested in these relatable leads, but the bigger-picture plot is never lost, and new twists and challenges pop up all the time to keep things exciting. Overall, I would certainly recommend The Vacant Seat to fans of accomplished, suspenseful dramas everywhere.

Olga Markova

The Vacant Seat by C. J. Toca is a superb mystery unfolding in Rome. Stefania is a young journalist on her first day with the scholarly Italian Monthly Journal. Her first assignment is to review material at the Vatican Secret Archives about the pope’s efforts in 1918 to resolve the First World War. Instead, Stefania is given classified materials related to the pope's death in 1978. At the Archives, Stefania meets Thomas Houghton, an Englishman who is very curious about the 1978 pontificate. Meanwhile, in Russia, Svetlana Greshchenko, the new head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, inherits from her retiring predecessor the files of Operation Archangel to infiltrate and manipulate the Vatican in the interests of the USSR. Before long, Stefania, Thomas, and Svetlana find themselves in a perilous mystery whirlpool.

The Vacant Seat by C. J. Toca is a fascinating international action thriller with a gentle touch of clean romantic intrigue. The atmospheric settings of Rome, the wilds and wonders of Scottish lochs and castles, the sophisticated secrets of the Vatican and British royal lineage, unexpected revelations, and suspenseful perils of fast-paced adventures kept me engrossed from the first page to the last. I was particularly awed by Toca’s enriching, enticing intrigue with excursions into the history of Catholicism, highlighting historical tensions between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. It is so harmoniously written, formatted, and designed that nothing less than a top rating, in my view, would do it justice. I highly recommend it to mystery, adventure, and action thrillers fans.

Pikasho Deka

The Vacant Seat is a mystery thriller novel by Christopher J. Stracco. Model-turned-journalist Stefania DiMaggio has a tough job after moving from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Rome, Italy. For her first assignment, Stefania must visit the Vatican and study its archived documents as part of her research. Along the way, she meets the handsome Duke of Radcliffe, Thomas Houghton, whose Aunt Josephine used to be one of the pope's attendants before his untimely death in 1978. Stefania and Thomas stumble upon a buried secret that could shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. Hunted by a powerful group, Stefania and Thomas' investigation leads them on a quest across Europe and Brazil, leaving a trail of dead men in their wake. Now, Stefania has a difficult choice to make. Does she protect Thomas and her newfound faith or reveal the truth?

If you're a fan of books such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, The Vacant Seat will be up your alley. A perfect blend of mystery, romance, and suspense makes Christopher J. Stracco's gripping mystery thriller an absolute blast, and you just don't want to put it down. With a fast-paced plot full of unexpected twists and turns and some well-developed characters, Stracco's narrative keeps you immersed in the story until the last page and leaves you wanting more. Stefania and Thomas form a compelling dynamic, and their love story was one of the book's primary highlights for me. I will highly recommend it to anyone who loves sleuth mystery thrillers.

Asher Syed

The Vacant Seat by Christopher J Stracco is a contemporary thriller that revolves around journalist Stefania DiMaggio who mistakenly receives documents on the 1978 papacy instead of her assigned task on the First World War. Ever the journalist, intrigued, she investigates the short-lived pontificate and his attendant Sister Josephine, who is related to Stefania's unexpected partner, His Grace Thomas Houghton, Duke of Radcliffe. Unaware of the dangers ahead, Stefania's quest for truth becomes perilous. Meanwhile, Svetlana Greschenko, leader of Directorate KR, protects the classified "Operation Archangel" left by her deceased mentor, Vasily. As their stories intertwine, Stefania, Thomas, and Svetlana become connected through secrets and mysteries of huge significance.

The Vacant Seat by Christopher J Stracco boasts an engaging writing style that allows the story to flow smoothly. Stracco's ability to create palpable suspense in both moments of action and expected tension maintains a consistently brisk pace, which I appreciated because remaining invested isn't always easy in novels with as many moving parts as this one has. Having two strong women at the heart of the plot was probably the single greatest factor in what sets The Vacant Seat apart from the crowd; aided by the sheer veracity of Stefania and Svetlana. Being transported to the Vatican, Europe, and Brazil from the comfort of my armchair was a bonus. I was there not too long ago except the access Stacco gives in describing the publicly inaccessible, especially in the heart of the Vatican, was so real that it had me slightly jealous. Very highly recommended.

Jamie Michele

In The Vacant Seat by Christopher J Stracco, Brazilian journalist Stefania DiMaggio reluctantly takes on a despised assignment alongside the charismatic Duke of Radcliffe, Thomas Houghton. The two embark on a journey across Europe and Brazil, pursued by Russian intelligence agent Svetlana Greschenko. As they delve deeper, bodies accumulate and Stefania resists her growing feelings for Thomas. Their mission revolves around deciphering the enigmatic words of a sheik, leading them to uncover a monumental secret from the twentieth century. This secret, fiercely protected by the Vatican, Russians, Thomas, and his family, threatens to remain buried forever. On the eve of a crucial summit to resolve the Ukraine war, Stefania, armed with the collected puzzle pieces, prepares to reveal the truth in her written exposé.

What a timely novel to be released with the real world being only a year into the war between Russia and Ukraine! It appears that author Christopher J Stracco has the chops to churn out a novel faster than the average writer and the impressiveness of this is that The Vacant Seat is really very good. The work could use a stronger polish, but the story itself, the characters, and the pacing are engaging and pitch-perfect. At its core, The Vacant Seat is actually a spy thriller told from alternating points of view. As a member of the British hereditary peerage, the inclusion of Thomas Houghton is an excellent contrast in character to the feisty working-class Brazilian Stefania DiMaggio. The narrative is laden with history that helps readers along with understanding Papal order, inner workings, and even sainthood. There's also intrigue that swarms around conspiracy, suspicion of what's in documents not meant for the public, and excellent cat-and-mouse chasing to bring it all together. I have no doubt that those looking for a weekend diversion will find it here.