Hilary Mantel's seductive historical novel begins with a command: "So now get up." A boy is being beaten by his brutish father. It's a neat way of launching a story which revolves around notions of command, duty, loyalty, conscience and state violence. Henry Vlll wants to dump his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn – but this isn't just another retread of the lusty monarch mad with desire for his ambitious lover.
The Tudor dynasty, with its sex, scheming and death, does lend itself to continual reanimation. Costume dramas pump up the melodrama: the king struts in tight leather trousers (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) or is a thuggish EastEnder (Ray Winstone). Tudor groupies in fiction range from Norah Lofts and Jean Plaidy to the current first lady of 16th-century soap, Philippa Gregory. Their narratives are often gripping, always sentimental and throb with women who "giggle" or say things "softly".
Mantel, however, is alive to the sexiness of power and politics over codpieces and cutpurses. That isn't to say her vast book lacks period detail. Rubies cluster on the king's knuckles "like bubbles of blood". There are bolts of holland, sarcenet and taffeta. Good cooks perfect their spiced wafers; the less talented serve cheese like "the face of a stableboy after a night out."
In her epic A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel steered a course through the French Revolution. Here there's similar turbulence and the same potential for disgrace or destruction. A man might be burned at the stake for wanting to read the Bible in English or boiled alive for serving suspect broth.
Mantel picks an unlikely hero – Thomas Cromwell – and reconfigures him. Cromwell's reputation, the man responsible for the Reformation, is dark. Yet Mantel shows him as learned, wry, tolerant, calculating. Cromwell is self-taught, self-made. From the boy bloody beneath his father's boot he rises to become the king's most trusted advisor.
The blacksmith's son from Putney can "draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury". Once he ate scraps from an Archbishop's kitchen; now he's a lawyer speaking many languages. He can price someone by the yard yet see the poetry of well-ordered accounts.
We stick with Cromwell's viewpoint. Throughout the book – told in the present tense, with startling immediacy – we learn in flashbacks how this outsider served as a French mercenary, worked in Florentine banking, in Antwerp as a cloth-dealer. A protégé of the charmingly venal Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell understands the changing times. The nobles dislike but need him. Things are no longer run from "castle walls" but "counting houses". England is remaking herself and Cromwell's trajectory heralds the beginnings of meritocracy.
Pitched against him – another bold move – is Thomas More: fanatical, snobbish, chilly. Cromwell's household bursts with children whom he educates but never whips, and a wife he treats as an equal. The Lord Chancellor, conversely, humiliates his family. Cromwell, who as a child witnessed the burning of a Lollard, has sympathy for Tyndale's followers while More practically turns the rack himself when it comes to heretics. More wants utopia; Cromwell fits snugly into the world as it is.
Real events (the sack of Rome, the royal divorce) play out against a pungent, lively backdrop. "The moon, as if disgraced, trails rags of black cloud." It's noisy, stinking, damp; but there's beauty when "the sun casts against the wall shifting squares of lilac and gold".
Mantel's writing is taut; the dialogue sprints along, witty and convincing. She draws her extensive cast with deft strokes. The spurned Katherine comes "stitched into gowns so bristling with gemstones that they look as if they are designed less for beauty than to withstand blows from a sword". Skinny, acquisitive Anne has protruding black eyes,"shiny like the beads of an abacus."
Mantel stops with More's execution. We know what happened, and that makes seemingly unimportant details carry more menace. A sulky young musician earns Cromwell's dislike ("you may never think of us, Mark, but we think of you. Or at least I do."). When Anne was beheaded, Mark Smeaton died too, accused of being her lover.
The very title is a postmodern tease. It has little to do with this narrative. Jane Seymour is Anne's lady-in-waiting now but soon will be her successor. Wolf Hall is the Seymour's country house. The book's last sentence has Cromwell planning his visit.