Form: e-book, mobi format
Genre: historical fiction
Target audience: history geeks, adult and young; other readers as well
England in the 1520s. Relatively young Henry VIII has a family-related problem – a wife much older than himself and no male heir. Should I say more? His story of love and marriage with Anne Boleyn has been done to death – you might choose between books, movies, plays, you name it. This time it is presented from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell – a man of humble background who starts as a blacksmith’s runaway son and a mercenary; then he rises to become one of Henry VIII’s top advisers and courtiers. But the king is volatile: one day tender and kind, the other day impatient and even murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
What I liked:
First let me just say that the scope of this novel is simply immense. I was totally awed that Hilary Mantel set out to describe the whole tumultuous period in English history, not focusing on just on Henry, Anne, the court and the plotting but showing also the struggle faced by those behind the scene – simple people like a mad village prophetess or a little French thief, Christophe, who asks Cromwell for protection and a job…those huge proclamations or big meetings between the rulers are here too but the most important scenes are described by Cromwell, sitting alone at his desk, thinking and reminiscing. It was spell-bounding, like watching a real-time strategy game, not like a boring history lesson.
The narration is hardly linear – you must pay attention and let the book take you forth and back but I must say in my case the effort paid off. From time to time I felt as if I was sightseeing the 16th century England.
The novel was very well researched and rather detailed but it didn’t spoil my reading pleasure. Thomas Cromwell –what a main character! The word ‘three-dimensional’ doesn’t do him justice – not really. Small wonder I simply couldn’t get enough of him. He was a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: an honest person but also a consummate politician (say: liar), hardened by his personal experience, implacable in his ambition and cunning. Very human, very flawed, completely ruthless but not to those who are weaker than himself. He lacks principles but it is actually an advantage if you live in a period when people with principles are being beheaded for them.
Finally Henry and Anne…those two have been portrayed time and again from every angle – most often he is the beast (big, fat and red) and she is the beauty (dark, delicate, feminine). Well, not in this book. Anne is definitely one of the baddies here – cold-hearted, false, overly ambitious, cunning and selfish to the extreme, especially considering her treatment of her pretty sister, Mary. I did start pitying the king as he was portrayed here – he fell in love with such a snake of a woman.
What I didn’t like:
As I mentioned above the novel is long and complex. If you don’t have enough time for it (like at least several days, I am not kidding), don’t start it – it is not a flaw, just a warning- because then you will be forced to drop your reading and the return is not exactly easy – think about the return of the king in LOTR and you might get an idea how difficult exactly it might be. 😉
I did try to pay attention but still sometimes I had trouble with distinguishing characters, especially that there was a number of people called Thomas, Anne, Jane, Mary and Henry (in that one it seems that indeed every man is called Tom, Dick or Harry). From time to time somebody is referred to by his or her name and other times by his or her title. That’s why it happened I had some trouble keeping track of who was saying what and to whom.
I recommend this book to all fans of good historical fiction, no matter how many versions of Henry VIII’s story you have read/heard/seen. However, if you happen to suffer from low boredom threshold or you are being busy you might find Wolf Hall quite a challenge. This book demands your full attention not unlike a king or a queen.