In "Bring Up the Bodies," the sequel to the Booker Prize-winning novel "Wolf Hall," Hilary Mantel continues the spectacular story of Thomas Cromwell, the 16th-century adviser to the English throne. Imagine "The Godfather" from the consigliere's point of view, "The West Wing" with Henry VIII instead of Martin Sheen.
The son of an abusive blacksmith, Cromwell has improbably risen to the heights of Master Secretary in the blue-blooded palace, where "the affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear." No man in England works harder than he does. A welcome counterpoint to the slacker heroes who stagger through so many contemporary novels, Cromwell trains falcons, adopts orphans, drafts legal briefs, sweet-talks ambassadors, lends money at considerable interest, interrogates witnesses and speaks multiple languages, although he frequently keeps that a secret so he can eavesdrop on servants. He is as cunning and clever as Odysseus -- how does a mortal writer inhabit such a man? -- and, like Homer, Mantel gives him plenty of grief.
Early in the book, he hopes for a slightly easier day of just "the usual business, war and peace, famine, traitorous connivance: a failing harvest, a stubborn populace: plague ravaging London, and the king losing his shirt at cards." Incredibly, though, things get quickly more complicated. When Henry wants to upgrade his wife, it falls to poor Cromwell to get rid of the old one, to build a case against her and navigate a wasp's nest of intrigue.
A perfect character for the interior world of fiction, Cromwell as a courtier and conspiracy weaver can rarely say what he means, or even what he thinks. Every interaction thrums with subtext. It is thrilling to see him speak politely while enraged, with an "expression as carefully blank as a freshly painted wall." Because we alone know all his secrets -- because we see the juxtaposition between his exterior and interior worlds -- we are bonded to him, as we are bonded to Emma Bovary and George Smiley. He makes us feel cleverer than we actually are. And best of all, he'll be back again, for the third book in a projected trilogy. It can't return soon enough.
Matt Burgess teaches at Macalester College and is the author of "Dogfight: A Love Story."