This is one of those books that I wasn't sure if I wanted to read or not, but became convinced by reviews and the appearance of the second of the series that I needed to give it a try (Bring Up the Bodies - I mean, how can you not read a book called that?!). I had abandoned Tudor historical fiction for my more favored Plantagenets, but the point of view of Thomas Cromwell promised something new.
The first 150 pages of this book drove me crazy for the same reasons noted by others. Mantel has little respect for common rules of grammar such as putting dialog in quotation marks or starting a new paragraph with a new speaker. She uses run-on sentences making use of punctuation not often seen in other modern fiction. If you love dashes, semi-colons, and colons, Hilary is your girl, Cromwell is referred to as "he" no matter how many men are in a scene, much to the confusion of the poor reader. Once I got beyond wondering how this manuscript ever got through editing, I loved it.
I was completely taken in by Mantel's characterization of Cromwell. He is not sweet or romanticized, but neither is he a dastardly criminal whom you cannot wait to have meet his end. He is rough, but caring in his own way. He "looks like a murderer," but the women of London would line up for the chance to be the next Mrs. Cromwell. He is clever and sarcastic, the kind of man a woman falls in love with and then wonders that he is not sensitive and romantic toward her.
The dialog, once you let Mantel's version of punctuation sink in and become some form of normal, is witty, realistic, and made me laugh out loud in public on more than one occasion. I only did not enjoy Henry's conversations as he seemed too much a caricature of himself. Cromwell referring to Wriothesley as "Call-Me" made me smile every time.
This novel felt like it was written as a diary by Thomas Cromwell, but written in the third person to avoid anyone knowing that he wrote it. We are welcomed into the inter-workings of his mind, but always Cromwell is referred to as "he." It is almost as though Mantel was trying too hard to make her writing stand out as different, more literary, than other modern fiction, but the way she makes the characters come to life is a very redeeming quality. In the end, I gained an appreciation for Mantel's writing style which did make the novel stand apart from other, less complex, writing.
As others have noted, you will not want to read this book if you are not already familiar with the people and events that take place in it. This is not a exhaustive history of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but a very detailed account of it from one man's point of view. If you have never heard of Thomas Wolsey, Charles Brandon, Eustache Chapuys, or Reginald Pole, you will very likely be confused and frustrated. People are not explained or defined much beyond Cromwell's own thoughts about them, so you will want to have a decent background education on Henry VIII before trying this. If you love the Tudor period and challenging literature, I highly recommend this book.
I almost gave this a 5/5, but decided that since I spent the first 100 pages saying, "Look at this! Where are the quotation marks? Who is 'he' this time! Why does it say 'I' now instead of 'he'?!" that I could not give it the highest rating but maintain that it is a very strong 4.5.