The very best thing about Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies: It doesn't end with Thomas Cromwell's thick neck on the chopping block after he loses Henry VIII's favor. Instead, there will be a third novel. Titled The Mirror and the Light, it will complete the story Mantel began with the sensational Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
Trying to convey the magic and majesty of these two Tudor-era novels leaves a reviewer burbling with superlatives. Riveting! A page-turner!
The funny part: The ending is no mystery. Henry the multi-married had the once-invaluable Cromwell beheaded in 1540. Nor is the subject — Tudor court sexcapades — unexplored in popular culture. Thanks to the TV miniseries The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl and best sellers by Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir and the superb C.J. Sansom, it practically feels like TMZ has set up a videocam in Henry's bed chamber.
Mantel's secret is her ability to make the reader identify heart and soul with Cromwell. You want the blacksmith's son to rise in the world the same way you want Mario Puzo's Godfather to triumph. You simply don't care that the skill set required for their career advancement requires murder and corruption.
Cromwell rose to power thanks to three things. One: His extraordinary knowledge of how the world worked, which he gained as a mercenary in Europe. Two: An Einstein-level IQ. Cromwell wooed aristocrats and mentored the young and ambitious.
Most of all, he was ruthless. Cromwell's job description was simple: Keep Henry happy. No room for scruples at this palace.
The plot revolves around Henry's disenchantment with the bold but aging Anne Boleyn. Having broken with the Catholic Church and much of Europe in order to put Wife No. 2 on the throne and in his bed, Henry finds himself drawn to the demure Jane Seymour.
Read Wolf Hall first — it's non-negotiable in terms of understanding Bring Up the Bodies. And if you're someone who devours business books about snaring that corner office, you'll discover that Mantel's novel brims with timeless career advice about the grabbing and keeping of power, even though codpieces are no longer de rigueur.