Thomas Cromwell

by Hilary Mantel


Wolf Hall

Rating: ★★★★

A slightly difficult one to rate. Part of me wants to spite the pages of ridiculously enthusiastic pull-quotes from the front of this edition, to point out the affectedness of Mantels affectations, the way the story lingers over certain focuses and motifs without ever having them pay off, the awkward wrangling with history and Mantel's ambition whereby a plot in the main centred around Anne has to be dropped and rerouted on a secondary thread so that the novel ends with More.

But I did enjoy the novel. The characters were each a human blend of weaknesses, pragmatics and ideals. Cromwell, like More, does evil things aplenty, but despite this he does not become entirely a villain -- his cares and his conscience remain evident. The combat is all linguistic, sharp wits drawing blood in quiet conversations. Not the sort of funny that has you slapping your leg and gasping, but still, funny. I was lukewarm on the style. Mantel contrives a style that is 'like' reading Tudor English without actually being like that, using some old wordings and a certain calculated ambiguity of phrasing in dialogue. It was fine enough as a device, and no doubt won Mantel some prize-judges, but I found myself annoyed by the lack of purpose for it at times.

However, the benefit of a historical novel is that you know the plot will be rich. I enjoyed caring about the illegality of Henry's divorce, seeing the political context laid out, the intrigues I had never heard of, the backdrop of events in Europe that I had always mentally bracketed as almost another timeline. The fickleness of the monarch and his court -- they today showered with gifts and high offices are tomorrow ruined -- is brought out particularly beautifully to give tension to proceedings.

The hook is taken, grudgingly. I'll likely read the rest of this series.

Bring Up the Bodies

Rating: ★★★★

Somehow less annoying than the first of the series -- I'm not sure if this is because of something that Mantel did differently or just because I was more accustomed to her stylistic quirks this time around. Some of the strangeness is lessened because we already know who Cromwell is: the pragmatically evil, multiply-talented courtier, carrying around a few remaining glimmers of emotion and sentimentality as he bullies events into advantageous order.

The basic structure of the story is straightforward enough, covering the dramatic second divorce and answering how the Anne so ascendant in the first volume could ever be brought down. The pace is fairly rapid -- it's more of a season than a multi-year chronicle -- giving the book a bit of a 'legal thriller' vibe, complete with salacious stories and something approximating courtroom drama. Oddly, Henry himself is quite absent from much of the book, especially the latter half. Seeing Cromwell handle the king would, I imagine, get repetitive.

Once again, I enjoyed being made to care about the marriage of a long-dead king, to see the different ambiguous figures meshed in the plot lifted from history. The third in the series no doubt offers the same, along with something like an ending for Cromwell himself, so I anticipate I'll continue soon.