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Hilary Mantel
Hilary MantelJohn Haynes

Any book that begins with a beheading is off to bang-up start, and “The Mirror and the Light,” Hilary Mantel’s brilliant new novel, opens with a world on edge. England in 1536 has theoretically been at peace for 40 years, but that peace is not an easy one. Unrest, stoked by the break with the Catholic Church two years earlier, is fueling revolt within, while the constant machinations of the country’s European rivals — France and the Holy Roman Empire — threaten without, especially as England lacks a clear line of succession.

At the center of all this, of course, is King Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch who has consolidated secular and religious power even as he lacks an heir. But just behind him stands a shadowy figure: Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s boy-turned-royal councilor. As the final book of this great trilogy opens, Cromwell has risen from adviser to the late Cardinal Wolsey to principal secretary to the king, with higher still to go. It is he who poses the book’s central question, “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” And it is Cromwell who, in the course of this stunning work, must uncover that truth, both about his world and himself.

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Cromwell, whose rise Mantel explored in her Booker winners “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012), is a complicated figure. Before the British novelist turned her focus to him, the royal councilor was typically scorned as the “vile blood” Machiavellian adversary to the noble and scholarly Thomas More — a transactional politician who helped Ann Boleyn to the throne and, as this new book begins, to the scaffold. Mantel takes what is known of Cromwell ­— his meteoric rise, his autodidactic scholarship, his reformist tendencies — and weaves them into a masterful portrait of a man at mid-life, facing up to his past.

Coming to terms with such a conflicted character is not easy. Cromwell’s interchangeable names — Cremuel to the French (as he was to Boleyn), Cremuello to the Italians, and Crumb to the king and his friends — hint at his many facets as well as his far-flung travels. To the reader, he is simply the narrator — once again, the close third-person “he” who speaks, raising (or rescuing) his friends and dissolving Catholic abbeys to enrich Henry (or himself).

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It is Henry to whom the title refers, praised by Cromwell as “The mirror and the light of other kings.” Even for the cynical Cromwell, this isn’t pure flattery. “Our monarch wore white. Head to toe he shone. Like a mirror. Like a light,” he observes.

But this image contains seemingly opposing functions, and repetition reveals its dual faces. Cromwell understands the transfiguration of coronation as “a burst of light,” noting that if it is divine, it is also short-lived, and when Henry is maligned as “Lucifer” his self-educated councilor silently translates from the Greek: “Day star … bringer of light.” The sword that beheads Boleyn is inscribed with one version — “Speculum justitiae,” mirror of justice — and another appears as the now-wealthy Cromwell regards his “silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and the light of all councillors that are in Christendom.”

Increasingly, however, Cromwell’s true guiding light is his illegal Protestant faith. When William Tyndale, who dared to translate the Bible into English, is martyred, his secret ally tells himself he “has put on the armour of light.”

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Tyndale’s execution is one of several that trigger the royal councilor’s personal crisis. Now in his 50s, Cromwell finds “the brute moral deformation” he has forced on himself has come back to haunt him. As Henry becomes more despotic over the book’s four-year duration, conflict is inevitable. “I must restrain my cannibal king,” his councilor vows.

Does he have such power? As Cromwell is named Lord Privy Seal and then Earl of Essex, he struggles to shape political reality with his private beliefs. “Can you make a new England?” he asks. “You can write on England,” he concludes, “but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells.”

He may as well be speaking of himself. “The higher you rise,” the newly elevated Cromwell is told, “the more you mention the low place you come from.” What he isn’t sharing is the full scope of his father’s abuse or his own early savagery, memories that force him to confront the painful contradictions of his life.

“It is nowhere recorded that the rewards of public office include a quiet mind,” he muses, “aware of the shadow of his hand as it moves across the paper, his own inconcealable fist.”

For violence is inescapable. From that opening sentence — “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away” — axes and the shadow of death are everywhere. If that sounds grim, especially in a work that tops 750 pages, know that throughout, Mantel revels in witty wordplay and imagery. Flowers, for example, pop up as marigolds embroidered in support of the Catholic Princess Mary or pansies for the traitor Reginald Pole, even as London blooms as the “flower of cities all.”

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Mantel’s language can be disarmingly contemporary — “suck on that, Mendoza” — or arcane, as terms like “dottypoll” (silly woman), “megrim” (headache), or “mouldwarp” add period savor that’s usually clear in context. That last — an archaic word for a mole — merits some research, as Henry is referred to as the Mouldwarp King, a legendary bestial monster, during the peasant revolution known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and is further refracted, four pages later, when a plain old mole is imagined dispatched “with a shovel.” Such sly humor not only illustrates its protagonist’s erudition, it serves to leaven the novel’s weightiest subject: not the rule of a country or, even, faith, but the reckoning of a man with himself.

“When I was a young man,” Cromwell recalls, “I needed all my strength. Pity was a luxury I might one day afford, like fine white bread or a book … a beechwood fire; a safe hand to light it.” Before, he does not have to say, the darkness falls.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT

By Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, 764 pp., $30

Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.

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