100 Books in 2011: The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman is the first of a trilogy following the life of Thomas Cale, a strange boy with a dent in his head and the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent’s moves.

We meet Cale in the Sanctuary, a sort of monastery/training school for boys who are to become Redeemers. The faith expressed by Redeemers is a thinly veiled version of the Abrahamic religions and the Sanctuary is a brutal environment where the boys are treated with such violence and neglect that many of them don’t survive. Cale is a survivor and what that makes of him is delicately handled, for the most part.

Cale discovers one of the Redeemers dissecting a girl while another girl is tied up waiting for it to be her turn. He kills the Redeemer and then has to escape. He takes with him two associates (friendship is an offence punishable by being beaten to death) because he believes they will suffer once he is discovered missing.

Against the odds, they evade the Redeemers sent to capture them and end up in Memphis, capital city of a nearby Empire. There they discover a world ruled by subtle gradations of status conferred by birth and bloodline. The Chancellor is a talented and intelligent man and recognises that Cale can give them information about the Sanctuary. He sends them to the Empire’s military training academy where they wreak havoc and make some enemies. In passing, Cale meets the daughter of the Marshal of the Empire and falls in love. Said daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck, is kidnapped by the Redeemers in an attempt to draw the Empire into battle. Cale rescues her. The Redeemers attack again and Cale is forced to admit that the tactics they are using are his, but that he doesn’t know what the big picture is. He doesn’t know why the Redeemers are attacking, or really why they do anything. In the end, Cale finds himself back in the possession of the Redeemers.

This is an odd book. It starts off well. The initial chapters introducing us to the Sanctuary and the relationship between the boys are great. They are delightfully disturbing and the environment is solidly evoked. This world seems very real. The writing style is compelling and engaging. Characterisation is good, although less so for the female characters. The action and dialogue are great, keeping the book moving at a nice pace. This first quarter of the book is definitely the best and it is worth reading just for this.

Then it all gets a bit wobbly. The quality of the writing remains high and the style is still compelling. In fact, the writing style is basically what carried me through the rest of the book because there are some weaknesses. The main weakness is the worldbuilding. When the setting is the Sanctuary it’s really good. This is a real place with great detail and an oppressive sense of horror about it. Outside the Sanctuary, everything seems a bit haphazard. Nothing seems to fit together particularly and there is some confusion about where places are in relation to each other.

If the POV was tight third person centred on Cale you could argue that he wouldn’t have the first idea about the world outside the Sanctuary and that it would all be confused. But Hoffman uses a loose third person POV for various characters and frequently slips into an omniscient POV where the authorial voice can be used. His handling of POV is good and the changes flow smoothly. The use of the authorial voice contributes to the engaging nature of the writing style. However it jars badly with the poor worldbuilding. There are POV characters who would know exactly how their world works but they are never used to convey that information to the reader. And there’s no map so you can’t check (although I believe that if worldbuilding is done well a map is unnecessary).

To compound the rather haphazard communication of the worldbuilding, Hoffman randomly throws in elements of the real world, which, to my mind, only adds to the confusion. It starts with a reference to the Norwegians (never followed up), then one to the Middle East, then the Redeemers attack a city called York. I’m wondering if this is more of an alternative history than a fantasy but this is never revealed. (Whilst looking for the image for this post I went on the Left Hand of God website which has a map. It’s not this world.) Towards the end, in a discussion about the cost of war, there is mention of a group of people called Jews who happen to live in a ghetto and lend money.

I know most fantasy worlds are based on elements of the real world and that some authors are better at it than others, but this is just lazy. It feels like he was just making it up as he was going along with absolutely no regard for internal coherence. It’s annoying. But other elements of the book are really good. I don’t really know whether to recommend it or not. I enjoyed it but also was frustrated with it.

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