It was attention to minute details — those of ledgers, politics, royal lineage, personal weaknesses, power relationships, and strategic advantage — that carried blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell from the lowly forge at Putney to the right hand of King Henry VIII. And in bringing to life the brilliant, ruthless and, ultimately, tragic figure of Cromwell, Hilary Mantel rounds out her trilogy of historical novels on his remarkable life by sparing no detail.

Her finale to the trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light,” weighs in at 754 pages. It follows “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” — both of which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction.

“The Mirror and the Light” opens following the execution of Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry’s six wives. Cromwell orchestrated her demise amid Henry’s frantic quest to produce a male heir and his war with the Vatican, which refused a divorce and annulment. Cromwell “discovered” or created Anne’s infidelity, sending the queen and her five alleged paramours to their beheadings.

Ghosts abound in “The Mirror and the Light,” at least in Cromwell’s head as he relentlessly rises on the bones of Henry’s real or supposed enemies and the crushed egos of the noblemen he leaves in his wake. Henry rewards Cromwell’s tireless work, increasing his power with repeated elevations to Master Secretary, Lord Privy Seal and Viceregent of Henry’s newly founded Church of England. His ruthlessness, his wealth and his enemies multiply exponentially as Henry makes him a baron, a knight of the Garter and, finally, the Earl of Essex — the towering height from which Cromwell soon has his fall.

And the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s powerful first mentor who became an early victim of Henry, is ever-present. Cromwell’s survival as Wolsey’s fixer, to become Henry’s, befuddles the nobility and, at times, even Henry himself. Even as Cromwell does everything from find new wives for the perpetually dissatisfied monarch to quell rebellions close to home and break up alliances among enemies abroad, Cromwell’s closeness to Wolsey is a perpetual seed of suspicion in Henry’s mind.
The height of Cromwell’s effectiveness comes amid the height of Henry’s happiness, when Jane Seymour — Anne Boleyn’s successor whose selection was orchestrated by Cromwell — finally gives birth to Henry’s male heir, Edward. Henry seems to have actual affection for Jane, but Cromwell quickly is put to the task of finding yet another queen after Jane dies from complications of childbirth a few week after Edward’s birth.

Cromwell, recognizing the danger to England of an impending alliance between French King Francois and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, arranges for Henry to marry young Anna, of Cleves, a dukedom in what is now Germany, as a means of creating a counter-alliance to diminish the threat. Disaster ensues. Henry, impotent and bewildered, rejects his new bride even as the alliance between Francois and Charles frays, undermining the fundamental reason for the marriage. For Cromwell, the long knives are out.

Anyone who has not read the first two installments of the trilogy might have some trouble following the labyrinthine relationships and the incessant palace intrigue of “The Mirror and the Light.”  An introductory cast of characters alone covers seven pages, but proves a helpful index as characters move through the shadows. At the least, it is helpful to have a thumbnail knowledge of the tumultuous Tudor reign through the 1500s.

In a note to readers, Mantel provides historical details — some of them very surprising given their apparent circumstances at the end of the novel — of what actually became of each character.

In sum, “The Mirror and the Light” is a richly detailed and satisfying conclusion to a brilliant trilogy of historical novels.

“The Mirror and the Light'”

  • Author: Hilary Mantel
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • Pages: 754
  • Price: $30