Hilary Mantel writes historical fiction that is so vivid readers can be forgiven for thinking every detail she has included is true. In The Mirror and the Light, Mantel has completed a trilogy of novels about a dark period in British history that are so rich and immediate, one could almost consider them the definitive biography of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born son of a blacksmith who rose to a prominent place by the side of Henry VIII.

For fans of the series, it is a fitting farewell to the devious Cromwell, whom we have traveled with over the course of more than 1,500 pages. The first installment, Wolf Hall, traces Cromwell’s rise from soldier of fortune to consigliere to first the infamous Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII as he searches for a way to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell is seduced by these powerful men, insinuates himself with them as he flavors their decisions from the shadows. The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, primarily follows Cromwell as he orchestrates the evidence necessary to behead Anne Boleyn, the king’s second wife, because he is infatuated with someone else.

The Mirror and the Light picks up immediately when the second book ends. Cromwell, triumphant in his machinations to destroy Anne Boleyn, enjoys unfettered access to his mercurial king. Henry, who wants to marry Jane Seymour, is hounded at all sides by other European nations and his own countrymen for splitting with Rome and establishing the Church of England. The king is no longer in his prime, overweight and ailing. Wounded animals become dangerous when cornered. Perhaps Cromwell is flying too close to the sun.
Over the course of more than 750 pages, Mantel painstakingly chronicles her protagonist’s undoing. There are just simply too many fires for him to put out: uprisings throughout the country, the question of ascendency if Henry, who has no male heirs, dies. The other members of the king’s privy chamber hate Cromwell because he wasn’t born into a rich family. All the enemies Cromwell made in the first two books are waiting, knives out.

The book definitely feels its length, with many sections delving into not only Cromwell’s past, but also the heavy regrets that have dogged him through life. Compared to Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour is an inert character, and when she finally perishes during childbirth, it’s Cromwell’s selection for her replacement that finally severs Henry’s affection.

But that Mantel dares to be boring in parts is mitigated by the loveliness of her prose, rich language that does not compromise. Her imagination of 16th-century London is rife with detail that feels organic and not the product of stiff research. And even though the book is entirely through Cromwell’s perspective, Mantel does not let him off the hook for all the heinous acts he committed. Instead, an almost wistful sadness permeates much of the novel.

An elegy for cruelness, Cromwell is finally served a dose of his own medicine in the final 100 pages of the book. We get to experience first-hand the terror the multitudes who have been sent to their deaths throughout the trilogy have felt. Cromwell has long remained one of history’s most shadowy figures. What an achievement that Mantel has accomplished, teasing a mysterious person out into the light and, over the course of three books, almost making us like him.

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