Contains observations that may be considered SPOILERS.
I received an advanced reading copy of “The Left Hand of God” through a giveaway at the Goodreads website. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own. I’m not sure if that small detail colored the way I feel about the novel, but it’s worth mentioning.
The plot seems fairly standard, combining elements from myth, fairy tales and film. Young boys are bought or kidnapped and brought to a monastery where they are cruelly treated and trained for warfare. The protagonist is Thomas Cale, a boy brought to the Sanctuary as a child and who is now the top student. He witnesses an unexpected and savage event that leads him to escape the Sanctuary, taking with him three others. They make their way to Memphis, major city, where Cale earns both respect and hatred. He falls in love, and that completely changes his outlook and approach to combat. The book concludes with a massive battle between the Redeemers of the Sanctuary and the Materazzi of Memphis.
The story doesn’t end there, because “The Left Hand of God” is, in another commonality, the first in a trilogy.
I must admit that the novel is compelling. I was never inclined to set it down and leave it, which I have done with books on rare occasions. I wanted to know what happened to the characters and what secrets they were hiding. I can’t say that the characters are well developed. We don’t often see into their thoughts, and when we do, it’s as though the door is cracked just a little. We get a glimpse, just enough to let us know that there is much more that remains tantalizingly beyond our view.
The time and place of the story is one of the most frustrating elements. According to the back cover blurb and the publisher’s website, “The Left Hand of God” is set in a “distant, dystopian past.” Many of the locations we visit or hear about bear familiar names: Memphis, the Appalachians, Fatima, Silbury Hill. Even the ones that didn’t sound familiar tend to show up in a web search, although they are not close together. The presence of plate armour suggests that it takes place during the middle ages, though certain aspects seem more akin to the Roman Empire. The characters will make one comment that makes it seem later in history then say something that seems contradictory.
The language includes many unfamiliar terms, some of which appears to be slang. I’m not sure those words are British slang or something that Hoffman made up. The characters know what they mean, so nothing is defined for us. Sometimes the meaning is easily discerned, but at other times I had no idea what I was supposed to be picturing or what the character was trying to say. A couple of times, I was left wondering if I was experiencing a typographical error. When the book says “squits” was it a typo for “squirts?” Hard to say. As I mentioned, the copy I have is an advanced reading copy, specifically an “advance uncorrected proof.” Had the book not been released shortly before I started reading it, I might have felt a duty to record the many typos and mail it in. In the past, I have read ARCs that contained typos and I have found those typos in for-sale copies of the book. I truly wonder if the “uncorrected proofs” are actually used for proofing.
In addition to the typos, I found any number of sentences that were not well constructed. I sometimes had to read over a line several times, trying different inflections and breaks to figure out exactly what Hoffman intended to say. Most of the time, I eventually understood. A couple of times, I just moved on. Those lines just weren’t written clearly, and could have been broken up or rearranged to have them make more sense.
The Redeemers are a religious cult that is very much based on Christianity or perhaps more specifically Catholicism. They worship the Hanged Redeemer, a martyr worshipped as the son of God, and death without redemption means burning for all eternity. Hoffman makes frequent and obvious parallels between the faiths. One of the primary Redeemer characters reveals, at the end of the novel, a prophesy given to him by a vision of the Redeemer’s mother.
It was at that point, at the end, that I came to believe that the novel takes place in a history so long ago that it’s been forgotten, with mankind and all civilization wiped out in the interim and reinvented by a God trying again to get things right.
So just tell me that. Don’t leave me trying to figure out if this is an alternate history or a fantasy world that just seems like Earth. I also would have liked more insight into who was telling the story. The book starts out (and I’m pulling this from the official series website, not the uncorrected proof):
“Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there…”
The first word suggests that someone is telling this story, someone who witnessed the events or who’s passing down the legend. It’s not written in first person, so it can’t be (or shouldn’t be) any of the characters we meet in the book. Sometimes, the narrator is omniscient. He knows what’s going on at the Sanctuary after Cale leaves, he tells us about secret meetings between a Redeemer agent and Kitty the Hare, a perverse businessman who seems to have some sort of physical deformity or mutation. Sometimes the narrator gives us a glimpse into a character’s mind; at other times, we get no insight into what anyone is really thinking.
While I was compelled to finish reading this book, I am not inclined to buy the next two books. I feel no pressing knowledge to know what happens next. So much of the story seems trite, endless set-up for religious and social commentary from the author, which he may reveal by the end or perhaps he’ll just let the readers decide for themselves.
A final note: on the official website for the trilogy I found a map of Cale’s world. I’m not sure if the map or any reference to it was included in the for-sale version. If not, it should have been. It doesn’t offer any particular insight, but it would have been a nice touch. I would also like to have had a guide to pronunciation for unfamiliar names and words and a dictionary of the unfamiliar or slang terms.
“The Left Hand of God” was released in hardcover in June 2010. It’s available for $25.95 from Penguin.com.