One advantage Wolf Hall has over many other historical fiction texts (other than the excellent writing of Hilary Mantel, which is certainly going to lead me to read more of her books, though I need to remember to keep my expectations reasonably low...) is that Mantel takes a character previously shown in negative light (think A Man for All Seasons) and makes the reader absolutely, completely and totally fall into step (or love - whatever) with him. By the end of the book, I wanted nothing more than for Cromwell to manage my own affairs and then clap him on the back and say, "Well, if you're pretty much best friend/truster advisor to the king... I'm sure you can be best friends with me!"
It's not just Cromwell, though. It's the human way Mantel portrays everyone - the positive and negative sides of Henry VIII, Wolsey, Catherine, Anne and many other historical figures I've only ever encountered very vaguely. This isn't a historical text, to be certain, but it's not the typical historical fiction novel either (romance filled and, with no offence to good historical fiction, lame). It's refreshing.
The main criticism I'd encountered of Wolf Hall before reading it (and the one that made me hesitant to approach it) was the label "dense". While reading Wolf Hall, I understood where readers might get that impression, even if I did not. The book is long, certainly, and packed, but "dense" in my mind means heavily packed to the point that it does not flow well. Wolf Hall flowed. It positively bounced. Whether in the intensely entertaining scenes of historical relevance, or the simply brilliant dialogue, I wanted nothing more than to continue reading the book. And also finish it.
It's true that it's been a long, long time since I've read a good historical fiction book. Or a good classic. Wolf Hall appealed to me on both those fronts, in the weirdest of ways. It's a book that feels modernly old-fashioned, historically contemporary, and all-over well-crafted. It's a book that's truly "extraordinary" - not quite like anything I've ever read and most highly recommended.