Life is short, and books can be so long. What modern reader has the analog attention span for nearly 2,000 pages of historical fiction — let alone the kind of knotty political intrigue that contains only distant war, scant sex, and no White Walkers, wizards, or dragons at all?
Millions, it turns out, found themselves falling happily headfirst into Hilary Mantel’s rich reimagining of real-life 16th-century statesman Thomas Cromwell, first via 2009’s epic door-stopper Wolf Hall, then with her nominally slimmer 2012 follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies. Now comes one last cinder block: its maddening, fascinating conclusion, The Mirror & the Light.
Cromwell’s rise from rural blacksmith’s son to the royal court of Henry VIII reads as both wildly improbable and inevitable: Officially, he held several titles, including Lord Privy Seal and Master of the Rolls; unofficially, his job fell somewhere between fixer, enforcer, and CEO. But being consigliere to a king took on new significance when the monarch, eager to shed his first wife and marry another, essentially altered the course of Christianity in his pursuit of a legal annulment. It was Cromwell who helped engineer it — spurring Great Britain’s break from the Pope in Rome and the creation of the Church of England.
Though Henry, famously, failed to stop at a second bride. So Mirror begins where Bodies left off, with the unlucky end of Anne Boleyn and this memorable sentence: “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.” Mantel hardly flinches from the bare facts of flesh — childbirth, beheadings, more ordinary “ill humors” — but her storytelling tends to lean less blood-and-breasts premium cable than PBS (which is where, in fact, the miniseries adaptation starring Mark Rylance aired Stateside in 2015).
Mirror’s focus, if it strictly has one, is on the continued power struggle between papal loyalists and Protestant reformers, and an increasingly addled king’s quest for a male heir. Mostly, though, it’s an almost diaristic chronicle of Cromwell’s day-to-day world. At 757 pages, it’s also easily the longest of the three novels, which Mantel seems compelled to fill with more of everything: not just people, history, and policy, but poetry, too. Sometimes her deluge of facts overwhelms: a pantalooned slew of dukes and earls — some confusingly referred to by multiple names, if they are not already a Thomas or Henry or George — come and go dizzyingly; events are episodic and often nonlinear; paragraphs pivot from an arcane act of Parliament to the taste of plums in midsummer.
Even with reams of research, of course, many details of that distant past are dust now, if they were ever tallied at all; what Mantel does, often brilliantly, is put movement and muscle on the bare bones of what’s known. Henry is a shrewd, stormy presence, but preening sovereigns and scheming bishops largely fade against the pinpoint humanity of Cromwell himself. His bundled contradictions — a polyglot scholar with bruised knuckles, as ruthless in business as he was benevolent at home — are more than mirror and light; they’re real, indelible life. B+