Book Review: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

Don’t run away yet, I promise this is a fantasy novel and not something dogmatic!

The left hand of god is about a boy called Thomas Cale, who was raised in an eerie and violent monastery to become a weapon against the unfaithful. Beaten, humiliated and punished often without warning, Cale is a brutal and unforgiving child, an expert in combat who feels no fear and can predict any move an opponent makes. So when he sees a young girl about to be grotesquely murdered by a redeemer priest, no one is more surprised than Cale when he risks his life to save her. He is forced to go on the run with two other acolytes and the girl, escaping the Sanctuary and making their way across the treacherous scablands to the city of Memphis.

Accused of murder and imprisoned, Cale quickly proves his skill as a warrior and tactician, becoming a vital player in the political battles of Memphis. He falls in love with the Marshal’s daughter, Arbell Swan-neck, embarrasses the pride of the Materazzi army and befriends the out of favour half brother of the Lord Chancellor. His devil may care attitude and dour reticence mean Cale (and his rather unwilling friends) are constantly in trouble, but when Arbell is kidnapped by the Redeemer army it is only Cale who can bring her back alive. But maybe it’s not Arbell that the Redeemers are really after.

This book is gritty, bloody and in some parts so witty that it made me laugh out loud. Richard and I have been discussing pain in fantasy and how some authors (cough Ian Irvine cough) dispense punishments and pains to characters that couldn’t possible survive it. We are fragile creatures after all (And no, I will not be reviewing any of Ian Irvine’s books any time soon, I did read them, but they are far too gory for me).The left hand of god is different – yes, the characters suffer excruciating pain, but only the ones who have been conditioned to harshness (those who grew up in the sanctuary and IdrisPukke who has spent years running, hiding and being shot at) actually survive it.

I also liked the scene where Cale battles Solomon Solomon. As a duel, it’s much more realistic than many I’ve seen, where the author wants to give the character a fluffy, merciful side. Cale has no softness. Even his feelings towards Arbell are tempered with violence, confusion and pain. Cale does not know mercy, because he has never seen it. When he does something, there is always more motivation than just doing the right thing – when he saves Simon from the boys in the yard, it’s more because he hates the boys than because he feels pity for Simon. When he pulls Conn from the battlefield, even Cale cannot say why he’s done it. Even when he rescues Arbell from the Redeemers, he is expecting a hero’s welcome and great recognition on his return. Cale is not a nice boy. He is not honourable or merciful or even good. But he is not bad either.

This book has some horrific moments. If you are at all squeamish, I suggest you miss pages 368 – 372. But if you do read it and decide that such a scene is too horrible to be realistic, I’ll remind you that a nearly identical method was used by Turkish troops during the Armenian genocide to wipe out the entire population of villages – human beings can be just as terrible as anything you’ll find in the left hand of god.

Wikipedia tells me the next book in this series is coming out soon. It’s called The Last Four Things. I’ll probably read it and it will probably haunt me for a few days like this book has. But it’s worth the reading – Paul Hoffman‘s style runs on and on, never stopping and never slowing and when he does backtrack, it’s deftly woven into the storyline so you don’t feel like you’ve lost time or track in going backwards. The violence is unforgiving and the politics are… well, political and if you like that kind of thing then you’ll enjoy it and if you don’t then your eyes will glaze over a little bit like mine did. Same with the battle tactics. Both (politics and battle tactics) are well researched, but not my cup of tea. The only other problem I had with this book are the obvious lines leading to a sequel. I like to be surprised by reapperaing characters in sequels – ones that pop up and you go ‘oh! Wow! I’d completely forgotten about that guy!’ In this story, characters like the boy who survives the village massacre are simply turned loose and you are left thinking ‘gee, I wonder how long before he turns up again’. But apart from these small irks (and it’s mostly me being picky), this book is a good read that is a bit like a car crash – horrific, but you can’t turn away from the page!

437 pages. Published in 2010 by Penguin (Michael Joseph).

PS: I found this, which I think is a really clever way of using visual media to advertise a book.

Leave a Reply