Book review: The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror and the Light,
by Hilary Mantel
Thomas Cromwell #3
Henry Holt and Co/Macmillan
784 pages
Historical fiction


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Eight years have gone by since the publication of Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel. So I was a bit nervous, thinking I would be lost jumping in The Mirror and the Light, book three, so many years later. I was also a bit intimidated by the size of the book (784 pages. These days, I tend to avoid huge books, unless they are written by really excellent authors). As often, my fears were not justified.

First about the size. I had put a hold on this book at my public library, and thought I would never be able to read it all before the due time, seeing the number of other readers waiting for it. BUT, the day after I got the book, my library closed because of the Coronavirus, and won’t reopen until June 15… 

More importantly, as soon as I opened the book, I felt in familiar territory. The beginning is actually brilliant and it grabbed me right away. 

The Mirror and the Light 1st page

I was again in the company of the same people, and in the presence of the same high quality writing style, proper to Hilary Mantel.
I really enjoy her unique way of using the third person narrative. The way she mixes it with other forms is unique and to great effect. In contrast, in the third part, when Cromwell opens about his ambition to be named the regent by the king himself, he occasionally uses the royal we (if I understood correctly the passage in chapter 3).

I have no ambition of writing here a real review. I wouldn’t know how to do it with such a long masterpiece. So I will just share some of my thoughts, what struck me, and what I really enjoyed, with a few of my favorite quotations.

Cromwell is definitely shown as a very smart and complex character. All along his life, he managed to survive by constantly reinventing himself and adjusting to every new situation. He is sleek as an eel (a favorite dish of the time!). We see him accumulating positions at court (even some unheard of for his social background), and becoming richer and richer in land and properties – and worries!

One element of his complexity has to do with fear and control. As early as page 19, you can see his fear about his own fate. Yet, more often than not, he seems to be pulling all the strings (in the king’s business and international relationships between England and other European countries, not mentioning about the people who will end up in the Tower or not). Indeed, Henry sometimes appears like a mere puppet in Cromwell’s hands.
Despite his control, he (this is a Mantelian “he”, lol) carries a knife with him, just in case. And really, with Henry, you never really know what he is up too. Even the great Cromwell cannot foresee it all.

Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.
Page 48

And obviously, his fears will grow and climax in the last part of the book.

Even though the book is about the last four years of Cromwell’s life, there are a lot of scenes of his youth. Some show the first signs of his adulthood personality. As he grows older and tired, he also tends to reminisce more and more, and sometimes, like near the end, he gets totally lost in the past, even speaking with the dead in his mind, knowing he is almost already one of them. It’s neat how the author inserted those memories in her narrative.

There are great descriptions of life at court, of the sexual relationships (apparently a very common topic there), and even of food. There are so many intrigues going on, related to power, sex, and religion!

And of course there’s a lot going on on the religious level in the country and in conflicts on the international level, with the rising of rebels; with Lady Mary; and with Reginald Pole and all that’s going on in Rome. And, it goes without saying, the tough job to find new wives for the king, with the future of England in mind.

Another element of Mantel’s style I really enjoy is her images, how she builds up on a theme. Here are a few examples:

The Boleyn’s white falcon hangs like a sorry sparrow on a fence, while the Seymour phoenix is rising.
Page 23

The evening, dove-like, is settling itself to rest.
Page 131

They have dug a deep well of resentment on which he may draw. It takes just a little time to fetch up the bucket.
Page 515

These days men are friends at the gate and foes at the door.
Page 681

If the king’s child is lost, nothing will persuade him that it is mischance. Kings are subject to fate, not luck. Accidents don’t happen: dooms overtake them.
Page 439

This description of the figure of the king is so good on pages 318-319, I like here the style of a detached observer:

The Mirror and the Light page 318The Mirror and the Light page 319The last part was incredible, with its acute sense of rhythm. You turn a page, and suddenly, the dread has become reality. 

The Mirror and the Light page 730

The Mirror and the Light page 731

Pages 730-731

And finally, it was fun seeing how Mantel played with the nouns of the title throughout the book. Here is one example on page 530:

The Mirror and the Light page 520

VERDICT: With her exquisite style, Hilary Mantel gives a magnificent end to her Cromwell trilogy. Another masterpiece.

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Should I read other books by her?



30 thoughts on “Book review: The Mirror and the Light

  1. Loved the two first books and am looking forward reading the third. Your review shows the final chapter is worth reading.


  2. I am glad to know that you did not feel lost reading this book so many years after the last one. That has been my fear but I don’t have the time right now to reread the first two volumes. So good, I am going to plunge in soon!


  3. I’m making my way ever so slowly through the book. I love the way Mantel shows this man who has been successful beyond anyone’s imagination being always reminded of his lowly past….


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  5. Excellent review of a book I am so looking forward to reading. I think Mantel is absolutely brilliant and you point how she really uses language to convey depth and nuance as well as simply tell her story effectively.

    BTW, I tend to like reviews like this that don’t focus on plot so much as what interested you about the book, and how you responded to it.


    • Thanks for your encouragement about my reviews. That’s usually what I focus on. If you want to know about the plot, you just need read a synopsis, you don’t need to read reviews. Actually, because of that, I have stopped months ago to even include the official synopsis of the book in my reviews.


  6. I’m so happy this book is finally out, been waiting for it for ages! However I don’t think I’m going to get around to it any time soon; I’m hoping to re-read the first two books and just savour this final volume. Happy to see you enjoyed it! 🙂


  7. I’ve seen her books around but wasn’t sure if I’d like them. I’m not good with anything too graphic but judging by your post I like the way she uses language.


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  9. I’m kind of wishing I had this to read during our lockdown last year, although I was also out of sorts for the first part of lockdown & now feel like I wasted that time, cause in the end, we only had about 4 weeks of lockdown in NSW, before I was back at work. Anyhooo

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my recent post. It was a very satisfying conclusion to this story, but I did think it was too long. Mantel could have said what she needed to in almost half the space imo.


    • Actually, when I encounter a great author, I delight in every word, and wouldn’t mind their books even bigger. 1Q84 by Murakami is the best example for me. It was over 900 pages, but I could have gone on and on

      Liked by 1 person

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