book is mostly set between 1527 and 1535 at the court of Henry
VIII, while Henry was maneuvering to control the English church and
marry Anne Boleyn.
I found it difficult to get into, as did a friend of mine who
read it before I did. Eventually it turned out to be as gripping
as you would expect a narrative about an interesting period of
history with well-drawn characters to be.
Analyzing why this was, I realized that it was the narrative
style. Eventually I figured out that it was written in the third
person, but completely from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell,
so that whenever “he” is used without an obvious antecedent,
Cromwell is “he”. Some of the time, this is made explicit, but I
continued to look backwards for an antecedent all through the
I looked up the technical description of various kinds of
third-person point of view, and it looks like this one is called
“third person limited”. Wikipedia gives the Harry Potter books as
an example of this technique, so it doesn’t always have to make
a book hard to read, but I have to admit I thought it was
frequently clumsy here.
Aside from that, it was a fascinating book. I had read
biographies from the period, but hadn’t run across a lot of the
details in this one. For instance, I’ve read lots of things about
Thomas More, but hadn’t known that he was renowned for his
abilities as a torturer. The characterization of London
businessmen in terms of whether they had copies of Tyndale’s
translation of the Bible was interesting. I was intrigued by the description of
well-off, heathy people dying of the fever in the course of a
There are also scholarly biographies of the main characters in
this book, which are probably better if what you really want to
know is more of the history of the time. But if you want a good
read with some history from a point of view you might not have run
into, this is your book.