Her head makes a dull thud as it hits the platform, rolling a couple feet away as her body teeters and lurches forward, swimming “in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks.” Queen Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII’s six wives, has just been executed on charges of high treason, incest and adultery. This is the note from which Hilary Mantel’s novel, “The Mirror & the Light,” kicks off. Mantel’s beautiful prose and attention to detail builds an immersive atmosphere, and her rich characterizations resurrect long-dead historical figures, their tics and quirks shining through to paint distinct portraits. Eight years in the making, “The Mirror and the Light” is the final installment of Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy, which documents the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son from Putney who became King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor, before being executed on charges of treason in 1540.

Thomas Cromwell is often snubbed by recorded history, which typically remembers him as a conniving, villainous and traitorous lackey of Henry VIII, and, indeed, in Mantel’s historical fiction trilogy, Cromwell has few friends and many enemies. But Mantel casts Thomas Cromwell in a less one-dimensional and more positive light, as an ambitious underdog trying to survive the whims of a murderously mercurial monarch. Eleven years after beginning this trilogy, Mantel’s grasp on Cromwell has ascended beyond that of a mere biographer. Mantel inhabits Cromwell’s psyche, wrestling with his doubts, fears, regrets and wishes, portraying them so convincingly that the reader takes on those same fears and wishes. The psychological portrait Mantel paints of Cromwell is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is the foundation of this tour de force of a novel. The reader chases after Cromwell as he tries to navigate a highly volatile political landscape, bodies dropping left and right. 

In spite of the details and outcome of Cromwell’s story being well known, Hilary Mantel manages to keep the reader on edge, constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting for the dagger to plunge into their back, as it inevitably will into Cromwell’s. She does this so well by constantly circling back to past grudges and mistakes, and keeping all those whom Cromwell has crossed within his immediate vicinity. As Cromwell continues to dance around the incompetent aristocracy around him, Mantel draws out the tension in every communication, setback and even victory over Cromwell’s enemies. She makes the reader well aware of the disgust Cromwell’s peers have for him and his lowly birth, hostility shining through word choice and descriptions. 

This sense of foreboding pervades every chapter, and what soon becomes clear is that time, whether it’s the past, present or future, is vindictive, and no one escapes its grasp. Mistakes of Thomas Cromwell’s past echo throughout the novel, and there’s a sense that he can never quite escape those he’s lost along his path to survival. Cromwell is a man of many talents, and tries to not focus on the past, but, unfortunately, “the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace.” Shadows of his deceased mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, flit across his memories at night; the oppressive presence of his abusive father looms over him in his darkest moments; memories of the warmth of his dead wife and daughter taunt him at his most emotionally vulnerable. “The dead,” Cromwell reflects, “are crowding us out.” The years weigh heavily upon Cromwell, and you, the reader, feel it.

But a few of Thomas Cromwell’s spectres are the same ones he sent to the grave himself. After Henry VIII grew tired of Queen Anne Boleyn and set his eyes on another woman (a pretty common occurrence for the king), Cromwell was the man tasked with trying to dissolve the marriage. Though the king was the one who wanted Anne dead, Cromwell was the one who helped build the case that resulted in the execution of her and several of her alleged lovers. Not only does Boleyn’s ghost haunt Cromwell’s conscience, but her former allies do as well.

Cromwell is keenly aware of this, and, even as he rises through the ranks of the English court, he’s never certain of when his sins will catch up to him. Even as he tries to temper Henry VIII’s worst impulses, there’s an uneasy sense that the ground could crumble beneath him at any moment. One slip up, one miscommunication, one failed alliance, and Cromwell might be on the chopping block himself. Mantel summons this fog of uncertainty by wielding the ambiguous motives of Cromwell’s peers to her advantage. With favor of the elite constantly shifting, it’s difficult for the reader not to feel as unsteady as Cromwell does.

It’s oddly reminiscent of our current political landscape, in which lives are subject to the whims of an unpredictable leader, and established officials are ousted day-by-day. As one of Cromwell’s allies puts it: “We both know what it is to serve this king. We know it is impossible. The question is, who can best endure impossibility?” It’s almost comforting, knowing that the turbulent times we’re currently experiencing aren’t unprecedented, but Mantel ruthlessly exploits the undercurrent of fear, engrossing the reader further in the story and driving home the consequences of such a turbulent atmosphere.

The fear isn’t unfounded, either. History tells us that the life of Thomas Cromwell does not end happily: After orchestrating Henry VIII’s third marriage, and then failing to dissolve that marriage when Henry found his bride unattractive, Cromwell is charged with treason, and sentenced to die. The reader knows this from the outset, and it’s just a matter of time until that actually happens and Cromwell falls from grace. The reader’s foreknowledge of his fate makes the last section of the book all the more poignant: After Thomas Cromwell, a nobody from nowhere, is made the Earl of Essex by the king, it seems that he has finally made it out of the woods. “He had thought the sands of time were running out: running through the cracks in the shining bowl of possibility he holds in his hands. ‘Now all is mended,’ he says.” Cromwell, after a lifetime of anxiety, would finally be able to focus solely on effecting change, rather than on merely surviving.

But history ripped the rug out from under him, and Mantel ensures her readers feel the force of that fall. Henry VIII orders Cromwell imprisoned, and the vultures who have been circling Cromwell the entirety of the novel are finally able to descend. It’s difficult not to admire Cromwell, so it’s devastating, even infuriating, when the futility of all his efforts becomes apparent. All of these elements — the atmospheric, the emotional, the political — coalesce into a gripping historical drama. Hilary Mantel had me enamored with this beautiful conclusion to her trilogy.

Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at tlafren@umich.edu.