Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell. No, you’re thinking of Oliver Cromwell; Thomas was a key advisor to Henry VIII. (But yeah, they’re related.)

So the general arc of the thing is reminiscent a lot of Hamilton, but tbh it’s probably the arc of a lot of historical figures who meet with early success and then die before their time. But basically you’re looking at a first book that’s Cromwell’s rise to power, where he first becomes an advisor to Henry, and rises to prominence. The second book is him at the height of his powers, cementing his success and place in the world. The third book… well, it’d be a spoiler if this weren’t history, but also nobody hangs around Henry too long and stays alive, so yeah, it’s a tragic ending.

These books have won tons of awards, so it’s probably not any surprise when I say that they’re excellent. They seem to be well-researched; which is to say, you can find grumpy old history professors complaining that the conversations and details about interpersonal relationships are fiction—which I think people pretty much get; no matter how much you think you understand a historical figure from a novel, you don’t really understand them—but lots of other professors saying that Mantel nailed the details and concerns of the period; and nothing felt obviously off to me, someone who is not an expert but has done a nonzero amount of reading about this time period.

Beyond the setting, Mantel really also paints an incisive portrait of not only Cromwell, but all the characters in the book. (There’s actually literal portrait-painting here, as Hans Holbein is a character in the books, and does his famous painting of Henry, but I digress.) In particular, one of the things that Mantel does well is keep you in Cromwell’s mindset, but then periodically drop in someone telling him what his reputation is in the countryside or whatever, and it’s always a bit of a shock, because you’re seeing this very reasonable calm guy do the things he needs to do as kindly as he can, but then it’s like, oh yeah, right, he did technically literally just burn Thomas More for a religious difference, I can see why people might think badly of that, even as it seemed an inescapable course of action to Cromwell.

The different books also capture their mood well. The first is… not exactly exuberant, but it’s the kind of optimism and energy of a youngish man on the rise. But by the third, it’s looking back as often as forward, it’s rueful at times as Cromwell second-guesses himself, and in general it’s a darker and more melancholy feeling that culminates where it inevitably must.

Obviously strongly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Tudor England, but honestly this trilogy is good enough that I’d recommend it to anyone for whom that time period isn’t an active negative


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