Villains make the best protagonists.
In college, I played Sir Thomas More in a production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. So when my friend Josh recommended Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell — the ostensible villain of Bolt’s play — I was intrigued. Then my highly literate friend Karin said on Twitter:
On a whim, have started reading Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”. Oh my god, guys. It’s BREATHTAKINGLY good.
The prose is so delicious I want to eat it. Ravishing.
That sealed the deal for me.
Reviews of the book are easy to find. One or two quality ones will give you an idea of what the book is about. What they don’t give you, however, is a sense of what the book is like. Here’s what stuck out at me. My apologies for the lengthy quotes; my prose alone can not do the book justice.
The narrative voice is distinctive, unusual, and at the same time easy to follow. The book is narrated in the third-person, present tense, as the opening passage demonstrates: 
“So now get up.”
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Blood from the gash on his head — which was his father’s first effort — is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard not of it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
It wouldn’t surprise me if this a modern style, but I haven’t read much modern literature, so it was new to me. What was even more striking, though, is that while Cromwell is the putative viewpoint character, the narrator certainly has a perspective of its own. Consider the following scene between Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey.
“They couldn’t agree over the dowry you know. The old fox, Ferdinand, her father. He would fox you out of any payment due. But our present Majesty was a boy of ten when he danced at his brother’s wedding, and, in my belief, it was there and then that he set his heart on the bride.”
They sit and think for a bit. It’s sad, they both know it’s sad. The old king freezing her out, keeping in the kingdom and keeping her poor, unwilling to miss the part of the dowry he said was still owing, and equally unable to pay her widow’s portion and let her go. But then it’s interesting too, the extensive diplomatic contacts the little girl picked up during those years, the expertise in playing off one interest against another. When Henry married he was eighteen, guileless. His father was no sooner dead than he claimed Katherine for his own. She was older than he was, and years of anxiety had sobered her and taken something from her looks. But the real woman was less vivid than the vision in his mind; he was greedy for what his older brother had owned. He felt again the little tremor of her hand, and she had rested it on his arm when he was a boy of ten. It was as if she had trusted him, as if — he told his intimates — she had recognized that shee was never meant to be Arthur’s wife, except in name; he body was reserved for him, the second son, upon whom she turned her beautiful blue-gray hers, he compliant smile. She always loved me, the king would say. Seven years or so of diplomacy, if you can call it that, kept me from her side. But now I need fear no one. Rome has dispensed. The papers are in order. The alliances are set in place. I have married a virgin, since my poor brother did not touch her; I have married an alliance, her Spanish relatives; but above all, I have married for love.
And now? Gone. Or as good as gone: half a lifetime waiting to be expunged, erased from the record.
“As, well,” the cardinal says. “What will be the outcome? The king expects his own way, but she, she will be hard to move.”
Not exactly limited viewpoint or unbiased, I’d say.
Beyond the prose style, my enjoyment of the novel was enhanced by my familiarity with the historical events in question. A scene between Dr. Cranmer (future Archbishop of Canterbury) and Princess Mary (future Queen Mary I) has more weight knowing that at some point after the book is over, the latter will condemn the former to burn at the stake. It will admit that some of the details had slipped past me before, like the fact that the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, was uncle to two of Henry VIII’s wives.2 On the whole, however, the pleasure I took from the book was enhanced by the knowledge I brought.
Most critically, however, Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is utterly compelling. She makes him real and understandable, much more so than Thomas More. He is presented as the ultimate Renaissance Man, who speaks half a dozen languages, knows the value of nearly any good, and understands that the medieval world of kings and knights is already outmoded — replaced by the merchants of Antwerp and Florence — even if they don’t know it yet.
On Cromwell himself:
It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt — ready with a text if the abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
And on the birth of the modern world, as Cromwell speaks to the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys:
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh. The king — lord of generalities — must not learn to labor over detail, led on by his intelligent greed. As his prudent father’s son, he knows all the families of England and what they have. He has registered their holdings in his head, down to the last watercourse and copse. Now the church’s assets are to come under his control, he needs to know their worth. The law of who owns what — the law generally — has accreted a parasitic complexity: it is like a barnacled hull, a roof slimy with moss. But there are lawyers enough, and how much ability does it require, to scrap away as you are directed? Englishmen may be supersitious, they may be afraid of the future, they may not know what England is; but the skills of adding and subtraction are not scarce. Westminster has a thousand scratching pens, bu Henry will need, he thinks, new men, new structures, new thinking. Meanwhile he, Cromwell, puts his comissioners on the road. Valor ecclesiasticus. I will do it in six months, he says. Such an exercise has never been attempted before, it is true, but has already done much that no one else has even dreamed of.
There is more, of course. There is Cromwell as crypto-Protestant, struggling to keep his fellow believers from Thomas More’s rack. There is Cromwell as royal confidante, landing unharmed from Wolsey’s fall, becoming an intimate of Anne Boleyn and eventually of Henry himself. And there is Cromwell the husband and father, grief-stricken at the abrupt deaths of his wife and daughters from the plague. Wolf Hall paints Cromwell even more than More as a man for all seasons.
1 Technically, it’s third-person focused omniscience as the Elements of Fiction Writing: Description reminds me.
2 Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.