The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.
Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?
The Thomas Cromwell trilogy is, hands down, the best historical fiction I have ever read. An explosive combination of terrific writing, unbelievably true court intrigue, and a mysterious yet prominent historical figure. Just wow.
Mantel is an utterly brilliant writer. Wolf Hall took some acclimation, but by the time this third book came around I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I slid back into the writing. It’s so interesting how she blends Cromwell’s mater-of-fact nature with really lush descriptions and complex philosophizing. It alternates between minimalist and stream-of-consciousness in a way that should be off-putting, but is instead so captivating. This is a book I couldn’t put down.
Honestly, her portrayal of Cromwell is half the appeal. He’s so … cheeky? Lovable? Ruthless? Loyal? All of the above? He’s such a complex character, willing to do difficult things for the greater good of his country and his religion. Ignoring the less-than-admirable qualities of others if that person promotes him or his cause. Steadfastly loyal to the King, yet constantly being questioned because of his background. Despite the fact that his is a complicated character, one who is absolutely nothing like most of us, you just can’t help falling in love with him. Not like, romantically, but as a reader. I want to read about every moment in history from his perspective. I feel like I truly know him.
The other half of the appeal of this series is Tudor England. You can’t make this stuff up! There is so much back-stabbing, sleeping around, torture, political alliances, money grubbing, corruption, theological debate, and just DRAMA. It’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in all the shenanigans that this all actually happened.
The best part, is that it happened long enough ago that we can’t ever really know what actually happened. Paper was too expensive for them to record the minutiae like we do today. So there’s a lot that’s up for debate and interpretation. Which makes historical fiction in this era extra fun. You never know what direction this author will go, and it’s a blast finding out. This book in particular was especially interesting to me, because it’s the years of Henry VIII’s life I know the least about. Though I had a good guess about what I thought happened to Cromwell, I didn’t know for sure, which meant I didn’t know how it was going to end. It’s not often a Tudor England novel gives me a chance to be surprised by the end. Though, in the end, my good guess was right.
The end! Perfect. So sad it’s over. Want more. *sigh*
The other thing I want to take a moment to appreciate was the character guide at the front of the novel. Over the course of three novels a lot of characters are introduced, and many of them with multiple names, titles, and nicknames. Though I’m sure if I had read these three books back-to-back-to-back I wouldn’t have needed it, it had been long enough since I’d read the last book that it was nice to have a reminder of who was who and what their relationships to Cromwell were. I found myself referencing it a lot, especially at the beginning.
Guys, I don’t say this often or lightly, but this book was perfect. If you like historical fiction and you haven’t read this series yet, what are you waiting for?