Set in the reign of Henry VIII, it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who becomes the king's most trusted adviser and the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Now why should that interest anyone except history buffs?
I was surprised by how contemporary it is.
There are no "forsooths" and "begorrahs" here, no archaisms to look up in the dictionary.
Mantel writes in modern English and yet recaptures the old England beautifully.
It's like a postcard from an exotic place. The lords and ladies wear doublets and gowns, shoot bows and arrows, and marry partners chosen by their parents before they are out of their teens — but they are no different from us in their feelings, impulses and motivations.
This is a book about politics, sex, intrigue and ambition.
Henry VIII's England is like a modern dictatorship. We see his deputy, Cromwell, draft new laws to stifle dissent and get them passed by parliament.
We see the religious persecution under Cromwell's predecessor, Sir Thomas More, who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned anyone found with an English translation of the Bible.
Yet the ruler himself, Henry VIII, wants to be loved by his people. And it is remarkable the devotion he inspires.