The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel. Book report #9 (2020)

I had read the previous books in this series a few years ago. Both were very good, so I had high hopes for this concluding book. And I was not disappointed.

Personalities that we think we know from history become very real people in these novels, with depth and complexities not captured in the non-fiction versions. This book picks up the story right after the beheading of Anne Boleyn and ends with the execution of Thomas Cromwell on the day of the wedding of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard. The novel captures the tension and drama of the backroom politics and machinations of the lords of the time, and the insipid tempers of the King – like a spoiled child rather than a ruler. In the end you feel ambivalent to Cromwell’s death. He didn’t do anything really to deserve it, but then in those days, who did? The accusation of treason was flung about without anyone caring much about the power and significance of the word, only that they bring an argument to a bitter end very quickly (much like an accusation of fascist or racist does today). So, when his life is brought to an end, there’s a bit of, “well, what did you expect? Look who’s your boss.”

Mantel concludes the book by describing the fates of all the other major players, what they did after Cromwell is dead, how their own reckonings came about, culminating in the end of the Tudor line with the end of Elizabeth I, powerful but childless, in 1603. I always like those afterwords that close off all the loose ends of the story.
The books can be challenging because of all the people with various names and titles, like Russian novels with the complex names and family connections; even Thomas Cromwell changes his name near the end, becoming Earl of Essex and using that as his surname for the short remainder of his life. Mantel keeps the story moving well, dramatizing events and meetings and dinners with James Bond-like spy-craft and politics. Although fictional, all are highly believable.
I can heartily recommend this series of novels, historical fiction at its finest, with none of the fantasy and anachronisms found in other series.
Fate: pass along to someone else or charity shop, as I’m unlikely to read it again.
#7 – book by a female author

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