The year's most powerful novel has a demanding premise: it's the story of Thomas Cromwell, a badass political fixer in 16th century England, a time and a place where modern realpolitik was slouching its way toward us to be born and where "man is wolf to man." The son of a blacksmith, Cromwell served under Henry VIII, who was busily seeking to sever himself from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in the hope of producing a male heir. He needed an omnicompetent and thoroughly hard-boiled man to help him do it, and that was Cromwell. Through Cromwell's eyes, Hilary Mantel strips away any scrap of romantic period glamour, laying bare the vain, cynical souls of some of English history's most familiar figures. The tragedy of Cromwell is that he's human enough to understand the cost of what he does, but he's too smart not to do it yet still he hangs on to his vision of a more enlightened political future for England. Watching the King and Queen take the stand against each other in court, one doesn't know whom to believe. "Hush," Cromwell tells us. "Believe nobody."