This is the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall. The story revolves around the life of Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to King Henry VIII and Master of the Rolls as he strives to look after the interests of the King and also ensure his position in the court. The story unfolds between September 1535 and the summer of 1536. Henry is married to Anne Boleyn but although she has given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, she has not been able to provide a male heir to the throne. When Henry becomes infatuated with Jane Seymour he is determined to end his marriage to Anne so that he can remarry. It is left to Thomas to gather the information leading to the trial of Anne and her admirers, to try to placate the rival powers among the nobility who all want the promotion of their interests, to carry out the changes regarding church properties after Henry declared himself head of the church as well as navigating the fragile relationships between England and its neighbouring counties, especially those who support the Pope.
Throughout the book we are reminded that Thomas is the son of a blacksmith and does not belong to the nobility, compounding his difficulties in enforcing his policies. However we are also reminded that he is a fighter who, unlike his rivals for power, has wide practical experience through living in a variety of European countries as well as experience as a banker and a lawyer. Thomas carries out his master's bidding but he also looks after his interests and those of his friends. This is particularly demonstrated when the act of prosecuting the young men accused of relationships with the Queen allows him to avenge a previous injustice to his previous master and mentor. The final sections of the book demonstrate Thomas' skill at interrogation and creating a case to serve the royal cause resulting in the execution of Anne and a new wife for Henry.
It initially took me a while to become involved in the book, possibly because I was only able to read small sections at a time, but as the plot progressed I became fascinated with the intrigue of the politics within the royal court. The third volume in this saga is yet to come.
A detailed review of this book appeared in the New Yorker 7 May 2012 - Invitation to a beheading
A short biography of the life of Thomas Cromwell provides details about his rise to power in the English court - Tudor citizens - Thomas Cromwell