Review: Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s so, so deliciously fun to read about characters who are unrepentantly good at what they do–even (or especially) if what they do isn’t very nice. Competent, confident characters are just cool. Think about it: Wolverine. Michonne. Han Solo. Samuel L. Jackson. Dean Winchester. Thomas Cromwell.

The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.

Yes, Thomas Cromwell, friend and minister to King Henry the VIII of England. Cromwell is a magnificent bastard, and I mean that in the best way possible. Even as he helps to engineer the downfall of Anne Boleyn, I couldn’t help but root for him; he does what he needs to do to ensure Henry’s happiness and his own house’s security, and does it with ruthless competence.

In Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to her Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, she follows Cromwell in the weeks immediately preceding the fall of Anne Boleyn. Whereas Wolf Hall took place over the course of a few years, the action in Bring Up the Bodies is compressed, to great effect: we jump right into the action and the pace doesn’t let up until the final pages. I found it just as un-put-down-able as Wolf Hall, which was one of my favorite reads of 2010.

As I said above, Cromwell as characterized by Mantel is a scrappy, capable figure who, despite helping Henry challenge the supremacy of Rome, is still an underdog in a world that values noble blood, not street smarts and a quick tongue. The constant tension between Cromwell’s successes for his new allies and their disdain for his methods and his humble origins was fascinating. And enraging. Though he has earned England wealth and helped to usher in what is later called the Reformation, he is still treated with scorn and derision from younger and less-accomplished men.

And while his relationship with King Henry the VIII is mutually beneficial, Cromwell’s continued success depends entirely on his ability to placate this man. Mantel successfully conveys the uncertainty (and frankly, terror) of serving a monarch. Though Cromwell is quick to point out his good qualities, like friendliness, Henry VIII truly comes across like a dangerous child. He has little-to-no impulse control, paired with absolute power and a willingness to bend laws to suit himself. His various love affairs are honestly ridiculous, as he flits from young, attractive lady to young, attractive lady. Cromwell will sometimes quote from his mental copy of “the Book of Henry,” or his techniques for staying in Henry’s good graces, and you begin to understand the unending pressures exerted by Henry’s presence. (I think this book may have made me into some sort of anti-monarchical radical?)

The last 100 pages are truly wonderful, as Cromwell efficiently takes down five young men who are accused of adultery with the Queen; they crossed him personally, however, by mocking the late Cardinal Wosley, Cromwell’s friend and mentor. I know that Cromwell is often painted as a villainous character, and it was only in this section that you could see his personal vindictiveness driving actions that he knew were not technically just. Rather than making me dislike him, this willingness to twist Henry’s wishes to suit his own purposes made Cromwell even more well-layered.

However, I think Mantel has started to lay the groundwork for Cromwell’s own eventual fall from favor. We can see some cracks in the facade of his perfect acquiescence to Henry’s service, and in Henry’s trust of his advisor. He and Anne share some words that are predictive, in both of their cases:

‘You must study your advantage, Master Secretary. Those who are made can be unmade.’

He says, ‘I entirely agree.’

Finally, it is to Mantel’s great credit that I was able to keep the many royal and attendant figures straight without making use of the cast list she provides. Secondary characters like Rafe, Gregory, and Call-Me are well-rounded and endearing in their own right. While I would have liked to see more of Anne Boleyn, it’s important to remember that these are Cromwell’s books, and she is in them inasmuch as he interacts with her.

I highly recommend Mantel’s latest in the Wolf Hall Trilogy; it’s a strong contender for my favorite book of 2012, and one of my favorites of all time.

I received Bring Up the Bodies free for review from the publisher. Bring Up the Bodies is available for purchase May 2012. I am also super-excited to see that there will be a third book in Mantel’s series on Cromwell, entitled The Mirror and The Light. While I can’t wait to read more about Cromwell, I’m dreading having this fabulous story come to an end.

Bookwanderer Rating: Five out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: Those who are made can be unmade.

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