Thomas Cromwell is a trader/lawyer/jack of all trades in sixteenth century England. His king, Henry VIII, has no male heir and wants to move on to a second wife, something the Catholic Church and its representatives from Rome will not stand for. So, how to make it legal? Call in Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey's man about town. This first installment of Cromwellian history follows Wolsey's downfall and Cromwell's rise as he clears a Parliamentary path to legitimize Anne Boleyn and her progeny (spoiler alert: Princess Elizabeth). The political intrigue runs deep; check out the awesome family histories and lists of players that front the novel! Things get complicated with all of that self interest and ambition, and it makes for a fascinating read, especially with such a brilliantly imagined lead character!
Yes, it is a bit dry and meandering. Mantel is building a trilogy detailing the nefarious Thomas Cromwell's rise to power, and his past is very vague in terms of historical record. Not much is actually known of his education and background, as there are contradicting accounts of the years he spent abroad. Mantel wisely uses this as a way to build her lead's enigma, enhancing his impressive career of power-brokering with a seemingly shady start and endless mystery. Indeed, perhaps Ms. Mantel means not only to keep Henry VIII's lords and ladies at court on the fence in regards to Cromwell's self-made ways and ambitions, but readers as well... food for thought.
“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”
It's an era that Hollywood and popular historical fiction have beaten into the ground, yet Mantel's brilliantly researched new viewpoint via Cromwell breathes new life and grit into it. The dialogue is quick and witty, the descriptions politically charged. Mantel's cast is thoroughly immersed in the chess match; every player a motive and every move a backlash. It's such a complicated feat, you have to sit back and be enamored at the patience it required to build such a beautifully wrought thing!