[Mantel] has reversed the appeal of these towering rivals of the Tudor period, that fecund breeding ground of British historical fiction as the American Civil War is of ours … Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory … Although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century … Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. Wolf Hall has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike.
Ms. Mantel takes an extremely contemporary approach to Cromwell by appreciating his toughness, his keen political instincts, his financial acumen and his intimate knowledge of the workings of power. Almost unimaginable, in the midst of Henry’s impetuousness, Anne’s ambition and More’s self-righteous condescension, Cromwell emerges as the most sympathetic member of the wolf pack that populates Wolf Hall … Her book’s main characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words … Deft and diabolical as they are, Ms. Mantel’s slyly malicious turns of phrase would count for little more than banter if they could not succinctly capture the important struggles that have set her characters to talking. But she is able to place Cromwell on plausibly familiar terms with royalty and on a fair moral footing with More, that paragon of self-sacrifice.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all … Cromwell’s actual life story is, in its way, a somberly fascinating one. But it is not the story that Hilary Mantel has chosen to relate. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall has some of the qualities that his enemies feared and detested—toughness, wiliness, worldliness—but as Mantel depicts them, they are qualities in the service of survival, success, and even a measure of decency in a cruel and indecent world … This is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.