It is September 1535 and commoner-turned-Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell is firmly ensconced in the court of Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn has been queen for seven years and yet, like Cromwell's pet birds of prey, her enemies are circling - not least the king himself. She has not borne him a son, and he is disenchanted with her. Meanwhile the demure Jane Seymour in her sprigged white gown is being pressed forward by her powerful family as a possible replacement.
As in Wolf Hall, the story is told from the point of view of "he, Cromwell" - Mantel's reliance on the pronoun returns the reader's attention to Henry's servant again and again in a novel full of declaiming males. His brooding presence can never be forgotten even as courtiers flirt and deceive and dissemble about him.
It is a presence that grows ever more menacing as Henry gives him the task of ridding him of Anne, a wilful but ultimately powerless adversary: "He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman." Cromwell muses. "Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does."
As Cromwell gathers the "evidence" against Anne, via treacherous ladies-in-waiting to besotted lovers (or possible lovers, her crimes are
never fully articulated), Mantel handles the pace as adroitly as a TV drama writer - although there is nothing soapy about her writing, rather dirt and blood and blade.
It is a masterly and knowledgeable evocation of the era, from the intrigues of foreign courts down to the smells and sounds of Hampton Court. The novel is thick with Mantel's research - and there lies much of the fun - but she has also dared, convincingly, to conjure up meaningful characters from the history books. Henry himself is bombastic, brutal and blood-thirsty yet moons around his palaces writing love sonnets.
As in Wolf Hall, there is much to admire about Cromwell. He is efficient, witty, dry, eloquently multi-lingual, one step ahead of his enemies and ahead of the king. He has softnesses - grief for his dead wife and daughters, love for his son Gregory, and compassion for the low-down boys he employs.
Yet it is his very thoroughness that is so devastating. As the novel draws to a close, Cromwell brings about Anne's downfall (and that of his enemies) with merciless efficiency. But, as Mantel writes: "there are no endings". A great read, as dark and tumultuous and gripping as Wolf Hall. I cannot wait for the final chapter.