This is simply a gorgeous book. I'm not actually a huge fan of the historical novel in general, as I find it something of a strain separating fact from fiction in them, but occasionally I read one that, as a friend recently said of this one, seems to be channeled.
I'm also not a huge devotee of the Tudor historical industry that others find endlessly fascinating. I watched "The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth" and then Glenda Jackson's "Elizabeth R." way back in my youth, and thought that was enough to be getting on with.
However, it turns out I was wrong. Turns out that I really did want to wade through five hundred plus pages on Thomas Cromwell, which is not even the whole life. Who knew? I mean, before I started this book, I thought Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell were the same person. (I guess I wasn't watching the TV series all that closely...)
The reason I wanted to read this book, the reason it won the Booker Prize last year, the reason more than one person has told me they want to live in its world (and this is the England of deathly fever and death of heretics by burning, remember, so that's saying something), is because of the beauty of the language and i's extraordinary, luminous style, and perhaps, above all because of Mantel's empathy toward her subjects, and her greathearted compassion.
It does not give much away to say that this book begins with Cromwell's boyhood as a blacksmith's son and charts his rise to being the confidante of Henry Tudor himself, precisely when he is embroiled in the affair of trying to oust his first queen and replace her with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell always saw what needed to be done, and did it. In Mantel's view, this did not make him ruthless, it made reasonable--and one of the few such around.
I expect few will love Thomas Cromwell as they start this book. I expect few will fail to at the other end.