Wolf Hall

It is as if they can smell the devil's spit; they are almost jostling each other to get into the air, which is mild, damp: a faint scent of leaves, a green-gold, rustling light. He can see that, in the years ahead, treason will take new and various forms. When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of. He feels a moment of jealousy toward the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.

This is Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII of England, thinking about the current trial of a demented woman, who claims to hear the voice of God, for heresy and treason. The penalty is death by fire. Cromwell tries, but fails to save her.

Hilary Mantel's sets you down in early 16th century England, among the entourage - within the very household - of Cromwell as he threads a perilous path between loyal service to his discredited mentor, Cardinal Wolsey to the inner circle of the King.

Her style is intimate. After some initial confusion as to who is speaking, Mantel eventually draws you inside Cromwell's head, so that you begin to recognize his voice, almost as if he were whispering in your ear. We have no way of knowing how close she has come to giving us a defining picture of the man, but she has given us a defining picture of someone who, given the times in which he lived and the information available to him, and what we know of this particular man, is as close as we are likely to come. Thomas Cromwell, in Ms. Mantel's hands, is interesting. And that's the highest praise I can give anyone.

Wolf Hall traces Cromwell's life through the death of Sir Thomas More. It is the first novel of a projected trilogy. I have just picked up the second of these, . I can't wait to rejoin the entourage. I just hope I get out alive.