Paul Hoffman is the author of The Wisdom of Crocodiles, which is a thriller that was made into a movie in 1998. The Left Hand of God is the first novel in a Fantasy series (trilogy) starring Thomas Cale. Early last year, the publishers pushed Hoffman and his book as the next big voice in Fantasy. The hype was blown down eventually and in some cases, as with the review by Niall at The Speculative Scotsman, the comments led to some interesting discussions about how "bad" reviews can influence us. I was among the people who commented, stating that by reading the review, I chose to put the book off my reading list. The dust has settled and with the release of the second novel, The Last Four Things a couple of months ago, I thought that I should give it try. Admittedly, my expectations were quite low but I hope that it didn't disturb my feelings.
'Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is named after a damned lie for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary'. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers: vast, desolate, hopeless. Where children endure brutal cruelty and violence in the name of the One True Faith. Lost in the Sanctuary's huge maze of corridors is a boy: his age uncertain, his real name unknown. They call him Cale. He is strange and secretive, witty and charming - and violent. But when he opens the wrong door at the wrong time he witnesses an act so horrible he must flee, or die. The Redeemers will go to any lengths to get Cale back. Not because of the secret he has discovered. But because of a more terrifying secret that lies undiscovered in himself.
The Left Hand of God is the story of young Thomas Cale, a Redeemer apprentice. The novel starts with his life at the Sanctuary where in the name of the Holy Hanged Redeemer, the novices are treated like shit. Cale is different for a couple of reasons, his fighting skills for one and the seemingly untouchable nature of his resolve. In fact, he feels like an empty shell. That was a problem for me for a considerable portion of the book. It's hard to feel some empathy toward that kind of character. The lack of emotion, even when the situation is far from emotionless, is awkward. This aspect seems to be inherent to the jarringly rough raising of the boy which ought to make him more interesting and, assuredly, he becomes more so eventually when affected by the events taking place around him. Who wouldn't?
The whole Redeemer idea fetched my curiosity more attentively. A group of questionable religious zealots training an army like the world has never seen, through harsh methods and extreme discipline with a profusion of doctrinal sermons, fighting in the far east against the unholy Antagonist is not the newest idea but its twisted differently enough and makes a great villainous entity. With the right characters representing them (Bosco, one of the main protagonists among their group being one) and a good motivation to back up their motives, the essence of their existence is justified.
However, there's one aspect of the world of Hoffman that I didn't grasp. At first, I was surprised by the name of the city of Memphis. I thought that the author could have chosen a better name than a real world famous city. But then, a reference to 'Norwegian' and 'Spanish' people appears and the name of Jesus of Nazareth is mentioned. So it seems that his world is an alternate version of history set in some future. Sadly, this is never explained nor is it hinted at, aside from insinuations. Maybe the next book will shed some light.
The author's writing style is out of the ordinary. The conceptual barrier between the reader and the storyteller is almost breached. I mean that Hoffman sometimes seems to explain to the reader, sort of trying to speak to him instead of writing a story. Alongside a prose reminiscent of a scholar or analyst writing a descriptive essay about the formations fighting in a legendary battle, the book is a mix of third person perspective and secondary source material recounting. The switches between the two break the focus.
With a slow pace where the protagonists are never quite sure what to do and often end up in long reflexions and where some battles are summarized simply by numbers, it's easy to feel disconnected. Nonetheless, Hoffman vocabulary and phrasing are adequate and Cale oftentimes lives the actual events instead of witnessing them and then the book becomes more appealing.
The story in itself has its charms. An ominous struggle between the Materazzi Empire and the Redeemers is looming and the three boys stand at the heart of it. Their intrusion in the life of the leaders and elite of the Empire, clashing the Redeemer outlandish ideas with their good old orderly 'nobility-based' political lifestyle is entertaining.
To give them an edge, the author chose to give the Redeemers an advancement in science and warfare. They have mastered medicine way better than their Materazzi counterparts, have developed a primitive form of sign language and their military technology is way ahead of the steel covered soldiers fighting only with swords. These elements are incorporated into several brief storylines and even though they seem interesting at first, they eventually feel like thin topics to thread upon.
In retrospect, I think that the novel is not so bad. The hype probably hurt it bad since it's not as stellar as it was advertised but still, it should not be ignored by everyone. I have many complaints about it but as for the writing style, it could be of interest to some while it sometimes irritated me. Let's hope the second novel in the trilogy will improve.
Technically, the infamous hooded man cover strikes again! It looks better in the first cover I posted, the Penguin Group original edition. On the other one, Cale looks like Anakin with a hooded priest robe... The hardback edition stands at 372 pages and the book includes a nice map. The audiobook is narrated in 12 hours and 33 minutes and is performed by Steve West. I was not charmed by his performance but is it his fault?
The Left Hand of God review score :
Characterization............. 7 /10
World building............... 6.5 / 10
Magic system................. N / A
Story.............................. 7.5 / 10
Writing........................... 6 / 10
Overall (not an average) 6.5 / 10
Paul Hoffman page