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“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away”: With this perfect sentence, Mantel plunges into the scene of Anne Boleyn’s execution, and there’s no need to spell out who “he” is. On the second page, the executioner, who was brought over from France, refers to him as Cremuel (“No Frenchman can ever pronounce his name”), and finally, a few paragraphs later, when the swordsman is showing off the special blade he used on the queen, “he, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal.” And we’re off, knowing that by the end it will be Cromwell’s head that rolls. (We can only hope his executioner will be as meticulous.) In the meantime, we get more of everything we’d expect from Mantel’s evocation of the reign of Henry VIII: power, rivalry, strategy, love, loyalty, ambition, regret, loneliness, lust—all centered on the magnetic Cromwell, a man who knows everything from the number of soldiers commanded by each nobleman in England to the secret desires of their wives and daughters. The narrative voice is as supple and insinuating as ever, but the tone is more contemplative—now that the newly made Lord Cromwell has attained the loftiest heights, he returns often to certain touchstones from his past—while the momentum drives forward to our hero’s inevitable fall. (Perhaps it could have driven forward a little more relentlessly; it does occasionally idle.) Cromwell has become almost a bogeyman to the people of England, and Mantel describes his reputation with characteristic dry humor: “He means to…tamper with the baker’s scales, and fix liquid measures in his favour. The man is like a weasel, who eats his own weight every day.” Mantel has created a vivid 16th-century universe, but sometimes it feels like she’s speaking directly to her modern reader, particularly about the role of women: “Try smiling. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel. Not that you can put it like that to a woman…she might take it badly.”

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