Two years ago something astonishingly fair happened in the world of prestigious prizes: the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for 2009 both went to the right winner. The book was Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” and it would have dwarfed the competition any year. “Wolf Hall” was a historical novel that ingeniously revisited well-trod territory (the early marriages of Henry VIII), turned the phlegmatic villain Thomas Cromwell into the best-drawn figure and easily mixed 16th-century ambience with timeless bitchery.
Despite a hugely complicated cast of characters and Ms. Mantel’s teasing way of preferring pronouns to proper names, it wound up providing an experience of sheer bliss. It was a hard act to follow. But the follow-up is equally sublime.
In answer to what will surely be everyone’s first question about Ms. Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies”: Yes, you can read it cold. Knowledge of “Wolf Hall” is not a prerequisite to appreciating what “Bring Up the Bodies” describes, because Ms. Mantel sets up her new book so gracefully. All of Cromwell’s scheming to expedite Henry VIII’s casting off of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn is behind him. So is the schism with the Roman Catholic Church that the first book so thoroughly outlined, maneuver by crafty maneuver.
All Ms. Mantel must do to reintroduce Cromwell is to revisit the most famous image of him: Hans Holbein’s portrait of a ruthless-looking power broker with “his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it.” She replays the moment in “Wolf Hall” when Holbein completed the painting, and Cromwell was startled to see himself looking like a murderer.
“Didn’t you know?” his son, Gregory, asks, once again, as “Bring Up the Bodies” begins.
Cromwell’s sparring with Anne Boleyn was in its tentative stages as “Wolf Hall” unfolded. Now she is queen — or, as the new book’s cynics put it, “Anne, the queen that is now.” And Cromwell’s dealings with her are “chary, uncertain, and fraught with distrust.” Anne insists on mispronouncing his name as “Cremuel” when she gives him orders. Cromwell follows those orders only as far as he cares to; he knows that her status is precarious, since the king’s eye has again begun to wander. When Anne arrogantly announces to Cromwell that “Since my coronation there is a new England” and that “it cannot subsist without me,” he typically keeps his rejoinder to himself. And it is typically brisk and brutal.
“Not so, madam, he thinks,” Ms. Mantel writes. “If need be, I can separate you from history.”
“Bring Up the Bodies” explains how he does it. But as anyone who can’t get enough of Ms. Mantel will be glad to know, this book is only the second in what will be a trilogy.
“Bring Up the Bodies” begins in September 1535 and spans less than a year. But the period is enormously eventful, especially when it comes to Henry’s much scrutinized dealings with women. Katherine of Aragon is said to be dying, and what will become of Anne if that happens? Each woman has borne a female child, but Henry is desperate for a male heir. (“Careful, madam,” Anne is told as she bathes, “do not wash away a Prince of Wales.”) When Henry is thought dead after an accident, it is suddenly understood that no succession plan exists.
And Henry has become smitten with Jane Seymour, whose family home is Wolf Hall, and who is described in this book with wonderfully elliptical malice. “She is a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise,” Cromwell thinks at first. He will come to understand how cunning and dangerous she may be before Anne’s reign is over.
“Bring Up the Bodies” is beautifully constructed, even though there will be moments when it seems confusing. It hardly helps that the list of its dramatis personae is broken down into categories: “The Cromwell Household,” “The Dead,” “The King’s Family,” “The King’s Other Family,” “The Howard and Boleyn Families,” “The Seymour Family of Wolf Hall,” “The Courtiers,” “The Clerics,” “The Officers of State,” “The Ambassadors,” “The Reformers,” “The ‘Old Families’ With Claims to the Throne” and “At the Tower of London.”
Dread is one appropriate response to a list like that. But it proves delightful to watch and anticipate how Ms. Mantel steers them all into and out of Cromwell’s view, follows his canny assessments of how to play them off against one another and lays out the affronts for which they will later pay dearly. He will do his impressive best to exact revenge for every slight.
At one point in “Bring Up the Bodies” Cromwell literally plays chess. Throughout the book he plays it figuratively, and Ms. Mantel’s descriptions of his calculations are often exquisite. As the drama mounts and the lines of fate are drawn, Cromwell gives this parcel of advice to a protégé:
“Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the ax in your hand.”
It takes no complex grasp of genealogy or English royalty (“the Plantagenets were kings once and they think they will kings be again; they think the Tudors are an interlude”) to grasp the elegant beauty of that passage. What may be more mysterious is why a trilogy centered on a man as cruel as “Cremuel” has so much appeal.
But Ms. Mantel makes Cromwell a wholly unexpected figure: self-made, belligerent because he had no choice, obsessed by abstract power as much as the actual kind, and confident in his ability to control and fathom what others are thinking. He is wise enough to know that being Henry’s henchman, fixer and stand-in (he even ghostwrites a love letter as Henry courts Jane) is a mixed blessing. So as “Bring Up the Bodies” tightens its focus suspensefully — in ways that explain what that cryptic title means — Cromwell’s confidence is shaken.
He left a trail of enemies through “Wolf Hall,” though the strongest of them — like Thomas More, saintly in many versions of these events but skewered in Ms. Mantel’s — did not survive Cromwell’s machinations. Now Cromwell has made too many new ones. He must co-opt the Seymours, and contrive who knows what else, if he is to last much longer in England’s good graces.
So he quails, but only for a moment. He turns his face away from scrutiny. But then he smiles that implacable smile and proposes a toast to his health, in a moment that could not be more ominous. That ironic ending will be no cliffhanger for anyone even remotely familiar with Henry VIII’s trail of carnage. But in “Bring Up the Bodies” it works as one. The wonder of Ms. Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again.