Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Left Hand of God - Paul Hoffman

This is something of a big moment for Random Comments. The Left Hand of God is the very first review copy I have received for review on this blog. Although I have not been all that active in trying to get advance copies, there is something to be said for being entirely free to read and review what you want, I do think it is flattering that someone was willing to send a nice hardcover version across the Atlantic so I can have a go at reviewing it. So a big thank you to the people at Dutton for providing me with this copy. The Left Hand of God is certainly an interesting book to review. It came out in January in the UK it got a big push from the publisher and therefore a lot of attention in the blogsphere. The reviews of the blogs I follow where mixed reviews but over here in the Netherlands the translation seems to be doing pretty well. Being translated right away is a sign of success in itself I might add, the major Dutch publishers of fantasy float on translations but they do like to play it safe. From all this, I guess I expected that this book could go either way.

Cale is a young boy growing up in the Redeemer Sanctuary, the seat of a particularly extremist and violent religious order. Life is hard for the boys in the monastery. They are trained for religious war and to harden them no method is spared. The food is terrible, the random acts of violence a daily occurrence and blind obedience to religious doctrine the norm. In short, not a very nice place to grow up. Although he doesn't know it, Cale is special. One of the Redeemers has seen Cale's potential and he is singled out for an education in war that goes beyond what the other boys are being taught. This does not earn Cale any privileges however, if anything his treatment is even more brutal than the other boys. Cale doesn't know about every horror that goes on in the Sanctuary though. When he stumbles across something he was not supposed to see, even his iron self-control shatters and he is forced to make a life altering choice.

A young boy with extraordinary powers, destined to "save the world or destroy it" to quote the back cover of the book. At first glance it looks like this book uses more than a few rather worn out fantasy clichés. In a way it certainly does. On the surface this book is a rather straightforward story of Cale discovering his talent and dealing with the world he's been kept away from for most of his youth. Throw in a damsel in distress, and indeed Hoffman does, and the picture is complete. Not really a story to get excited about. There are a couple of things that make this book a more interesting read than one would expect though.

One of the things I liked about The Left Hand of God is the humour with which some passages are written. Despite the dark nature of the story, the author finds a number of points where a dry sense of humour fits very well. In the quote below Cale has just described the dish he was raised on to his companion and the only available alternative. The dish, Dead men's feet, is described a kind of sausage of which one rather would not know what kind of meat is in it. At the risk starting a fifth Anglo-Dutch war, I believe the English eat something similar with breakfast.

"Well," said IdrisPukke after Cale had finished telling him about the Redeemers' way with food. "If I'm ever disposed to think badly of you, I shall try to excuse you on the grounds that little should be expected of a child brought up on dead men's feet." There was a short silence. "I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice."
"No," said Cale, too weak to be affronted.
"There is a limit to how much we should expect of the capacity of acceptance of other people. It might be better, should the subject ever rise in good company, not to mention the rats."

Chapter 18

The book is marketed as fantasy but other than the alternate world, there are remarkable few fantasy elements in the book. Hoffman uses a mixture of real world names and places for instance. One of the major cities on the map is named Memphis, the book include references to religious icons, people and practices, there is talk of Norwegians, Dutch and a region named the Middle East, etc. There's no trace of dragons, elves or magic and very few funny, unpronounceable names. There is only the barest hint that Cale's talent may be divinely inspired, although Cale himself believes a more rational explanation. The author puts in a number of references to real world events and literature as well, the Battle of Agincourt most prominent among those. Although some are pretty obvious, the author's afterword convinced me I missed more than a few. The cover letter and an interview with Hoffman state that the author used his experiences at a Catholic boarding school as in inspiration to the book. We have to keep in mind this is a work of fiction but I think it is save to say Hoffman didn't enjoy his time there. Given the amount of heat the Catholic Church is taking at the moment in various abuse cases, Hoffman's timing is interesting.

This barely fantasy approach, or not fantasy at all perhaps, Hoffman mentions in the interview linked about he doesn't think of it as such, is probably the key to why it got a number of negative review. The Left Hand of God is not Hoffman's first novel. I haven't read any of this other works but I understand they are quite different from this one. For people who know Hoffman from these books, The Left Hand of God will come as something of a surprise. For the experienced fantasy reader it is not a shockingly original book. It is very fast paced and entertaining read however, one of those stories that you could read in one session. The whole book emanates a constant threat of violence that kept me on my toes as a reader.

Despite the huge number of translations that have already appeared, The Left Hand of God is not a book that will turn the genre upside down. On the surface it relies too much on fantasy cliché to be very exciting. What did liked about this book is the style of the writing but also the way in which the books allows you to choose how challenging a read it should be. Hoffman cleverly hides a lot of references to his sources of inspiration throughout the novel, clearly something to look out for on a reread, and if you choose to pursue all those little nuggets it could make this book a much more challenging read. As long as you don't approach this as another boy-destined-to-save-the-world story there is quite a bit to enjoy in The Left Hand of God.

Book Details
Title: The Left Hand of God
Author: Paul Hoffman
Publisher: Dutton
Pages: 372
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-525-95131-5
First published: 2010


  1. well we got you two books already! ;) nice review


  2. Those were for review on FR weren't they. To cover for your own slacking reviewers ;)

  3. Very nice review! I still wonder though if I should buy an English edition or a Romanian one, since the novel was translated in my country too (the funny thing is that the English edition is cheaper).
    I am still curious to read the novel, although all the opinions I read about it are mixed :)

  4. Well, if it's cheaper and in the original language I'd go for the English edition.

  5. The modern names didn't bother me that much, they are not all that important to the overall story. I guess with reviewers disagreeing this much there is only one way to find out ;)