The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
Published by Michael Joseph / Penguin
Review by Mark Yon
As young adult books go, The Left Hand of God is a book which has much to be applauded. The tale is appealing; the fight scenes are exciting, the characters easily recognisable and the pages of the short chapters turn.
But, for better or worse, it is a young adult novel, though not explicitly advertised as such. Nothing wrong with that – many will enjoy the entertainment and energy of the novel as they did Harry Potter or the Young Bond series. For others, rather like myself, there may be an overall feeling of a tale told before, admittedly told well, though in the end rather empty.
I think part of the problem, for me, is that the book tended to fall between the two potentially interested parties. Some books, like, say Raymond Feist’s Magician or Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara can be happily read by teens and adults alike. However, in places, the book felt as if it might be rather perplexing for younger readers. Hoffman drops readers into the narrative rather like Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, without explanation and yet for adults, especially those who’ve read a bit of the genre, the books may not be complex enough. For them the tale may be too obvious, the evolution of the characters too clumsy and uneven, the dénouement predictable. It is undemanding, though entertaining.
The first part of the book takes a little while to get going but settles the reader in. It tells of Thomas Cale, a mistreated teen incarcerated in a world where children are sent off as slaves to be trained by the religious Redeemers. As a young adult tale, the significance of this is laid out clearly from the outset. Like many a morality tale the idea of ‘bad religion’ is signalled loud and clear, with a great dollop of Catholic guilt. The first section tells us over and over that Religion is dreadful, punishments are harsh, misery seemingly unending, litanies recited without understanding or merit.
Of course, such a bleak setting cannot last forever. As a Young Adult novel often is, it is a rite of passage tale, if not a rags to riches. So in the second part of the tale things step up a gear, as in true Oliver Twist-style, our hero escapes his awful conditions with his friends Riba, Kleist and Vague Henri, and goes to ‘the big city’, that of Memphis. Here circumstances and coincidence means that their lives take a turn for the better, and the book takes a lighter humorous tone.
Trained amongst Marshal Materazzi’s elite, they are found to have skills above and beyond the norm. In particular Cale is a killer with such accuracy and speed that suggests that their training at the Redeemer Sanctuary was more than the usual. The story again changes tack when the group are given the task of using their special talents to retrieve princess Arbell ‘Swan-Neck’ when she is kidnapped by the Redeemers.
At the end, there’s a major battle between the Redeemers and the Materazzi as the Redeemers attack Memphis, with a conclusion based upon the Battle of Agincourt and an ending that’s not entirely expected, though the explanation of the title at the end was unsubtle.
There are occasions in this tale where the book almost falters. The pace was a little too breathless at times, as the book sacrifices depth for pace. The characters are a little cookie-cutout, the actions a little too obvious and the transition and evolution of the characters rather uneven.
There are also places where the worldbuilding is a little forced. Though I got the impression I should be amused, the names of characters given in a sub-Gormanghastian style, like IdrisPukke, Desmond Desmond and Chancellor Vipond, I actually found annoying.
The unsubtle emphasis of plot points made repeatedly and without any ambiguity meant that in the end the book was a little too simple for my tastes but for many this will be a rollicking read that will entertain. It is similar in tone to the very popular Brent Weeks’ books and I suspect those who liked them will like this too. For those needing a degree more complexity and language a little less contemporary (eg: “Watch and learn, sonny.” Page 192) this may not be for you.
Mark Yon, January 2010.