Stories don’t get much more familiar than the tale of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn. The king lusts, the church splits, the heads get severed. You know the deal. So it was a bold move when Hilary Mantel took on the tale with 2009’s Wolf Hall, which follows blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell as he works his way — via brains and luck and sheer force of witty repartee — to the king’s side. Great writing defies spoilers: The joy of Wolf Hall comes not from learning what happens, but from watching Mantel build, with remarkable skill and emotional sensitivity, toward the inevitable.
Wolf Hall ends, and Bring Up the Bodies begins, with Anne on the throne and Cromwell on the rise. Henry’s amorous gaze is once again starting to drift, and Cromwell finds himself amid another life-and-death royal-relationship mess. Can he, Cromwell (to borrow Mantel’s signature tic), cater to the king’s whims, outsmart a swelling herd of enemies, and avenge his late mentor, Cardinal Wolsey? It sounds like the stuff of supermarket-aisle junk, but Mantel’s a first-rate stylist and master of psychology, imagining an entirely convincing cast of nuanced personalities: Cromwell — modest, loyal, and ruthlessly ambitious; Henry — childlike and proud; Anne — all calculation and slit-eyed menace.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have less in common with Showtime’s soapy The Tudors than with HBO’s dense The Wire. They’re the kind of books you have to learn how to read as you’re reading them. The blizzard of characters — some known by more than one name, many with such byzantine connections that even Cromwell keeps a chart — can be a challenge. But the effort is worth it. In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell’s cunning, morally complicated orchestration of that historic slice through the royal neck is as exciting as any thriller. A