Bringing Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel's brilliant Wolf Hall (reviewed here) and tells the next part of the Thomas Cromwell story as he assists in the downfall of the woman he helped, with so much difficulty, to marry King Henry VIII. We all know how the story goes: Anne Boleyn doesn't manage to cling onto her husband and is tried and executed. The king goes on to marry Jane Seymour but, as the book ends, Cromwell's machinations may have put him at risk from his enemies.
Once again, Mantel creates a compelling protagonist in Cromwell. It's very easy to slip back into the period, though I was grateful for the cast list that I referred to several times over the first hundred pages or so. As with Wolf Hall, I found the present tense jarring on occasion, especially when it required Mantel to qualify that it was actually Cromwell speaking or doing something. For the most part, though, it was easy enough to acclimatise to. I also liked the flashes of Cromwell's life and relationships, especially with his family and staff. Weaving them into the narrative worked extremely well, creating a sense of the man away from the politics without hammering it into the reader's face. Also, the way the late Cardinal Wolsey haunts both Cromwell and the pages is extremely effective.
For a while at the beginning of the book it felt as though nothing was happening. Despite this, it was still fascinating and, really, it was just a case of getting all the ducks in a row. The Tudor court is evoked as a hotbed of rumour and scandal but Cromwell's interaction with it interesting. My favourite scenes came when he is interrogating Anne's supposed lovers and, behind it all, there is a personal score he has to settle. I appreciate those interrogations, not only to continue the story of Anne's downfall but also as a tangible link back to Wolf Hall and to show a little more of Cromwell the man.
Of course, he wasn't a good man, bringing down queens at the drop of a hat and ransacking monasteries but Mantel creates a personable figure who leaps from the pages. And perhaps the most unsettling thing is how well he seems to fit into a twenty-first century mindset, despite the centuries of distance.