THE PLOT: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel is the final novel in the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy. Set in England between 1536 and 1540, it chronicles the downfall of Henry VIII’s principal advisor – Thomas Cromwell. Born the son of a blacksmith, the previous books chart Thomas Cromwell’s rise to the highest offices at the Tudor court. Now, the king relies on him to dissolve the monasteries, enrich his coffers and root out treason after the beheading of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. But when Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, dies in childbirth, Cromwell is also tasked with finding yet another bride for the king…
RATING: I’m giving this book three and a half stars because it simply did not have to be so long. At almost 900 pages, it is a whopper of a novel and an incredible feat for any author. However, the multiple flashbacks, dreams and painfully slow narration meant this book was not as dynamic as it could have been. As a lover of Tudor History, I would give the trilogy four stars overall because the atmospheric books bring a focus to, and show a different side of, one of the key characters in British political history. Yet I feel the author had a bit too much free reign to wax lyrical because of the success of the previous novels and this final instalment could have been edited better.
GOOD BITS: The detail and nuance in Cromwell’s character, using his upbringing and background to inform his choices and action in later life, was very accomplished. In particular, the intricate relationships between characters were well imagined, especially regarding Wriothesly and Richard Riche, Norfolk and Gardiner. Mantel fully understands the familial and friendship connections between characters of the period and uses that to make them feel intensely real. I also felt the sheer attention to detail, from the cloth to the candles was highly commendable – it truly felt like living history.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Even though this novel was so long and slow, I consistently kept reading it over a month or so. This shows that the characters and plot were compelling enough to keep me engaged as I really wanted to get to the end. However, the pacing could have been tighter and some of the flashbacks and dream sequences were unnecessary (we get it, Cromwell is from Putney and his father was a douchebag – the reader does not need to be shown that twenty times). Even the convoluted phrasing was tedious. For example, stating the character’s name after using ‘he’ was annoying – just use the pronoun or the noun, you don’t need both! (e.g., ‘He, Cromwell, smells his armpit.) Although these techniques helped to build atmosphere, the repetition meant they lost impact and only served to slow down the pace.
OVERALL: If you love Tudor history, give this book a shot. It’d be good to read it alongside Alison Weir’s book on Anne of Cleves, which gives you a female perspective on the same time period to counteract this male-dominated novel. I’d also recommend it to fans of Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick. If you’re a fair-weather historical fiction fan or like pacy plots, maybe just give this book a miss.