Mantel’s story follows Thomas Cromwell, a low-born in 16th century England who managed to work his way up to one of King Henry VIII’s closest advisors. I’ve read some of Philippa Gregory’s books involving this same cast of characters, I’ve read the Alison Weir book “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and I’ve watched “The Tudors.” (Fine, the show wasn’t exactly historically accurate, but it was still good.) Anyway, none of these takes Cromwell’s viewpoint, making this the same story flipped on its head.
Also, she writes the entire thing in third-person present tense. It’s incredible. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know it’s really hard to do well.
This is fiction, but it seems believable, and flows well. It’s a monster of a book at more than 600 pages, but never felt slow. You learn about Cromwell’s childhood, and how that influences his behavior as an adult. You watch him work, scheme and talk his way into more and more importance in English society. This wouldn’t normally be possible for a blacksmith’s son, but Cromwell has a certain mix of intelligence, daring and luck that make it possible.
The other thing I love is getting a view of the king and all the craziness around his divorce/annulment/whatever it actually was from Katherine and marriage to Anne. Plus, it offers a look into what was going on with those who believed the bible should be in English, accesible to all, and those that remained behind Rome.
Wouldn’t have wanted to live in the 16th century, but I love reading about it. This, by the way, is the first in a trilogy about Cromwell. Time to get No. 2…