I have to start out this post by saying that the majority of my knowledge of English history during Henry VIII's reign comes from having watched the complete series of HBO's The Tudors, which actually turned out to be the perfect amount of preparation for reading Hilary Mantel's acclaimed Wolf Hall. It's a novel in which there's no plot to speak of other than the sometimes glacially slow-moving events of the years leading up to, and just after, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. There's a huge cast of characters that can be a bit unwieldy. In certain scenes, especially those involving some of the more minor members of Parliament or the royal court, it can be hard to keep track of who's who. Yet in spite of all this, the densely compelling Wolf Hall still manages to be some of the most literary historical fiction that I've ever read.
The undisputed center of the novel, and of Mantel's subsequent trilogy of books, is Thomas Cromwell. We witness his personal and political machinations as he rises from poverty to a place as the valuable servant of Cardinal Wolsey to the right hand man of Henry VIII, able to manipulate the direction of the English government and church. Alternately a villain and a hero, I found myself despising him one moment and rooting for him the next. I think that one of Mantel's most effective tools in painting such complex character portraits is her rich dialogue. For all of her characters, she creates voices that sound familiar to the modern ear yet still feel appropriate for the time period. Cromwell's conversations with others reveal the most about him and, for me, were the most enjoyable parts of the book. Particular highlights include his private interactions with his family and his adversarial yet sympathetic relationship with Thomas More.
Having spent well over a month working my way through this, I can say with certainty that Wolf Hall is by no means a light read, but it is a fascinating one. I'm eager to continue on with these characters in Bring Up the Bodies, although I do need a bit of a break first--maybe I'll pick that one up once Mantel starts gathering awards for the third installment in the series.