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England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.
Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
From one of our finest living writers, Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.
It's hard to tell how much of this novel is from actual accounts and how much is made up, but Mantel does a good job of portraying Cromwell as a brilliant, yet emotionally distant man. Cromwell obviously cares strongly for his family but he finds a way to detach himself from work. You can't help but think that if Cromwell lived in current times he would be one of the guys that gets away with the downfall of a major company like Enron or AIG because of his mischievous ways.
Due to the fact that there are so many characters in this novel, if you have a background in the area (my background was only watching The Tudors and having read another book or two in the same time) you'll find things much easier to remember. Even with some knowledge of the characters, I still found it hard to determine who was speaking to who and what subject they were talking about. For this reason, it took quite a while for me to get into the book.
The book goes up to Thomas More's trial for refusing to take an oath of Boleyn's heirs and that Katherine was no longer Queen. I would have liked it to go up to Cromwell's downfall, and think it could have if it hadn't dwelled on less important points. When I picked this book up I was really looking forward to it but overall found it mildly disappointing.