Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. If you grew up in England, or just had a world history teacher who was weirdly obsessed with Henry VIII, you've probably heard the rhyme explaining the fates of each of the king's wives. For centuries, novelists, playwrights and filmmakers have been mining the Tudor family for dramatic gold, and with good reason: It's hard not to tell an interesting story about the monarch's parade of severely dysfunctional families.
No artist in recent history, though, has done as well with the subject matter as Hilary Mantel, the English author who won the Man Booker Prize for her brilliant 2009 novel Wolf Hall. The book followed Thomas Cromwell, the ambitious son of a blacksmith who rose to be Henry's chief minister, as he helped the king scheme for an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Wolf Hall ended with Henry (mostly) happily married to Anne Boleyn, the beautiful young daughter of an English nobleman.
Unfortunately, constancy was rather famously not among Henry's gifts. In Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the planned Wolf Hall trilogy, the king lets Cromwell know that he's fallen out of love with his second wife, and now favors Jane Seymour, the shy lady-in-waiting to Anne. Cromwell has to find a way to get Anne out of the picture, without tipping off her relatives in Henry's court. The rest, of course, is salacious, violent history.
Mantel masterfully portrays the childish Henry, mercurial Anne and enigmatic Jane, but the soul of the Wolf Hall books is Cromwell. His titles include "Secretary to the King" and "Master of the Rolls," but he's essentially a fixer and consigliere for the fickle Henry. Mantel's portrayal is complex, nuanced and wholly original. While Cromwell sometimes comes across as a Tudor-era Tony Soprano, Bring Up the Bodies shows a more unsure side, a middle-aged man coming to terms with his mortality, still mourning the loss of his wife and daughters. The portrait is as delicate and keen as any other in recent historical fiction.
Like its predecessor, Bring Up the Bodies is unremittingly exciting. Even though you probably know how the story ends, it's hard — almost painful — to stop reading. But it's not just the plotting that is stand-out. More than any other novel she's written, Mantel's latest overflows with stunning prose. Including the weirdly beautiful first line, "His children are falling from the sky." The author writes the kind of sentences you want to live in, even when describing something as broad and universal as the passage of time: "The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter, the summer has gone."
Mantel has been held in high esteem ever since her 1985 debut, the exceedingly black comic novel Every Day Is Mother's Day, but she seems to get more ambitious and self-assured with each new book. Bring Up the Bodies isn't just her boldest book; it's also her best — and it reaffirms Mantel's reputation as one of England's greatest living novelists.