Sunday, 23 January 2011

Book Review: The Left Hand of God; Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

3 out of 5

Thomas Cale knows no existence but the harsh, brutal world of the Sanctuary. Raised by the Redeemers his entire life, and extensively trained in combat, his world is turned upside down one fateful night. Over the following months, Cale’s life changes completely as he explores the world, seeking only freedom but all too inevitably finding violence…

I find myself in a curious position reviewing this book. There is a part of me – quite a large part of me – that screams that in a lot of respects, it really isn’t all that good, although by no means dreadful. On the other hand, it would be incredibly dishonest of me not to acknowledge that I started reading it at about 9.30pm and didn’t put it down until exhaustion claimed me at 1.30am. By this point, I was about halfway through the book. Another few hours the next day, and I’d rattled through to the end. Whatever the flaws of the book, I cannot deny that it is engrossing, almost addictive.

The most frustrating aspect of the book, for me, is that there is clearly so much potential here. The first part of at least a duology, we don’t get anything like a full picture of the world, but there are hints of something truly interesting, sadly swamped in familiarity. The Redeemers, for instance, are interesting in terms of the religion they follow, which clearly riffs on Christianity, but in terms of personality are almost every cliché of hypocritical and malevolent Catholics ever written. Followers of the Hanged Redeemer, it is not until a fair way into the book that we realise that it is not just a religion that riffs on Christianity, but is a bastardised, parallel version of it. Jesus does get a mention at one stage – mentioned as a jinx, who gets swallowed by a whale. In this context, and lacking anything much in the way of theological knowledge, I take the Hanged Redeemer to be Judas Iscariot, as the only person in the Bible I can immediately think of who was hanged; it would certainly fit with the twisted version of Christianity presented here. This is the most interesting part of the book.

The novel’s world is familiar in other aspects. Aside from the Sanctuary, the other main location is the city of Memphis…which is apparently not that far from York, and inhabited mainly by a people who seem to be blends of Spaniards and Venetians. It is a fairly stereotypical fantasy world, run by the nobility and thriving on honour. If you are as avid a reader of fantasy as I am, there will be little in Memphis that you have not seen before. Equally, Cale is an instantly recognisable figure – the mysterious orphan with a hidden destiny, little more than a walking weapon for much of the book, although showing some needed signs of development by the end. There are many other stock characters: the wily diplomat (a vizier in all but name, although apparently honourable), the witty mercenary, the beautiful princess, and so on and so on. There is a fine line between use of tropes and use of clichés, and Hoffman does not walk it without a few wobbles.

However, cliché does not itself a bad book make. While the writing is fairly bland, with some tense changes that I believe are technically correct, but no less frustrating for that, it is enjoyable. There is plenty of accomplished action, the plot is fast paced, with little time to breath between the next twist and turn, and there are plenty of plot hooks in place for the sequel, out this month. Ultimately, if you have more than a passing familiarity with fantasy over the last twenty years or more, you won’t find much more than an entertaining diversion here. If you are less of a geek, ‘The Left Hand of God’ will probably be more impressive.

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