This book is set in the reign of King Henry VIII, and tells of the transition from wife number 2 (Anne Boleyn) to wife number 3 (Jane Seymour) through the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chief Minister.
Anne’s failure to deliver a male heir has doomed her, and Henry sets his heart (and the country’s fate) on having Jane as the replacement, notwithstanding the absence of divorce as a solution. Cromwell is, according to the book, the one who has to engineer the changeover in the best way for the King, his new Queen, the country, and – of course – himself.
So, it is a book about power, religion, politics, influence, and wheeling and dealing. It’s full of conspiratorial conversations – with foreign ambassadors, family representatives, royalty old and new, politicians and the like. That’s as close as it gets to action. Nevertheless, I found it an enthralling read, primarily because the prose is high quality stuff. Mantel can turn the exchange of greetings in a passing encounter, into a piece of literature to be lingered over and enjoyed.
Cromwell’s character is brilliantly done, but truly most of the main players come to life in the book.
The critics loved it – it won both the Man Booker and Costa prize for 2012 – and ordinarily that would be a turnoff. But it really is quite good. Occasionally the writing is overdone – inevitably a matter of personal taste – but it’s a cracking portrait of an interesting character told with an eye for detail and the interest of the reader. I’m not that interested in the period – and remain unconvinced of the pull of this particular episode – but with Mantel it has been turned into something very worthy of your attention.