When death is a foregone conclusion, when one is merely counting the meals, minutes, and breaths before dying, what does it mean to be alive? We know from the start of Bring Up the Bodies that Anne Boleyn is destined to die, and soon. But rather than dulling our interest this knowledge brings a macabre frisson to Mantel's story. Anne flirts, plots, rages, and dines in innocence, and we are left to bite our nails and watch her agonizing decline. King Henry's honor necessitates that she bring a number of gentlemen down with her and these, the bodies of the title, are also dead long before the headsman brings down the axe.
Mantel brings Cromwell into focus with deft skill and heart. He is a bold, ambitious man who dares to bring down queens, but he loves his son and his friends, and offers mercy where he can. As in Wolf Hall, Mantel pulls the narrative focus in tight, getting as close to Cromwell as third person narration can, but in this second book in her trilogy she gives the reader a little more help with comprehending her style. We're grateful, and the book reads like the prize-winner it is. The plot gathers speed and tension as Cromwell uncovers suspicions and then evidence, however specious, of Anne's treason. Meanwhile the reader, just like Henry's bewildered courtiers, becomes caught up in the drama, beauty, and horror of this famous, yet uniquely told, story.
[Full disclosure: I am an unabashed Hilary Mantel fan. But you should be too. :)]