Mantel's fascinating trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) culminates with The Mirror and the Light, chronicling the final years of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power at the side of the formidable monarch Henry VIII. A commoner using his wits to accomplish a great height at the side of the king, Cromwell seems to achieve the impossible through the turbulent years of Henry's reign. He dodges the wrath of a man who is notable for a series of marriages in search of a male heir, even discarding the powerful Church that commands his obedience. For his part, Cromwell leaves his mark on England with a series of progressive plans, a vision for a modern nation.
It is a heady, thrilling journey, one day to culminate with a fall from grace, object of the wrath of a man notorious for turning on those he brings into his inner circle. Cromwell faces the dreaded confrontation in this final volume of the trilogy: "The king never made a man but he destroyed him again. Why should Cromwell be an exception?"
The Mirror and the Light begins with the powerful image of Anne Boleyn's tortured last days in the tower awaiting her fate, secretly hoping the king will change his mind. Reaching the scaffold at the foot of her executioner, she suffers a brutal, shocking end for all her flaws, head severed from her body, red blood against pale skin. Henry has finally overcome his lovesick folly, unbridled passion for a woman who caused a permanent severance from the Roman Catholic Church, who promised an heir she could not deliver, a woman coldly cast aside as the king looks for a new queen.
Thomas Cromwell--self-made, with a brilliant mind--fosters a dream for England's future, fitting comfortably at the king's side, anticipating Henry's demands, easing difficulties and supporting bold ambitions. He earns the envy of others in the Tudor court, men hoping one day to replace him as trusted councillor. Cromwell envisions a bold future for England under Henry's rule but is hindered by his inability to appreciate the realities of the situation, among them the monarch's eccentricities, notably a penchant for disposing of those who fall into disfavor. When the Spanish Ambassador asks Cromwell what will happen when the king turns on him, Thomas has no answer. He is surrounded by longtime enemies, equally ambitious men covetous of his position as the king's confidant.
This volume of the trilogy examines Cromwell's journey from the pinnacle of power to the ultimate denial of his value. From common stock with the gift of extraordinary foresight, Cromwell achieves many of his goals, but it is Henry who wields the power, adept at using his chosen ones then tossing them aside when whim dictates. It is ironic that Cromwell assumes he is protected from a similar disposal. Henry's radiance blinds him to the truth, as it does so many others until it is too late to beg for mercy or kind sentiment: "The wise councillor must always prepare for his fall."
As in previous volumes, Mantel recreates the years of Cromwell's rise and fall with mastery and critical insights. The vivid days of Cromwell's fated relationship with an iconic king are restored to life: the intricate relationship between two men, the swirling chaos of the royal court, Cromwell's spiritual struggles and evolution as a man at the side of a powerful ruler, and finally, his acceptance of the fate he faces. It is the same as the discarded Anne Boleyn, who bet her life on the favor of this king. The trajectory is shocking, even if grudgingly anticipated, the king's behavior familiar: "He left Katherine at Windsor and he never saw her again. He rode away from Anne Boleyn, gave directions to kill her, and left her to strangers."
Cromwell thinks of Cardinal Wolsey in such dark days, banished for his successes rather than his failures. Henry is set to repeat himself, sensing that the brilliant and confidant Thomas Cromwell has outgrown him, raised higher than intended. Thomas will be interrogated by Stephen Gardiner, Norfolk, and Master Secretary Wriothesley. These men will have the answers they seek, a confession to soothe the king's agitated conscience. For all the heady hours basking in the King's esteem, Cromwell fails to notice the dimming of Henry's favor, grown complacent in his surety. The ruler will cast him aside no matter that Cromwell's brilliant mind be extinguished, perhaps to regret this petulant impulse.
The final days in the tower are shattering, exquisitely rendered. Mandel captures the lapsing hours with a singular clarity: rising to a position of importance from nothing but a brilliant mind and his own efforts, Cromwell has tasted the glory of power and the folly of ambition, witnessed the efforts of both great men and fools, the honor of the king's regard and the despair of his rejection. History springs fully alive as the shadows of the past overtake the present, a haunting awareness of imminent loss.
Mantel seals her trilogy with the wrenching moments of Cromwell's final hours: "Now the pages of his life are turning faster and faster. The book of his heart is unscrolling, the lines erasing themselves..."