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The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
Review by John Berlyne
Michael Joseph Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780718155186
Date: 07 January 2010 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Philip Hoffman's loudly fan-fared historical fantasy (is it truly either?) is published in hard cover by Michael Joseph. Reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

""Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary."

The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a vast and desolate place - a place without joy or hope. Most of its occupants were taken there as boys and for years have endured the brutal regime of the Lord Redeemers whose cruelty and violence have one singular purpose - to serve in the name of the One True Faith.

In one of the Sanctuary's vast and twisting maze of corridors stands a boy. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old - he is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has long-forgotten his real name, but now they call him Thomas Cale. He is strange and secretive, witty and charming, violent and profoundly bloody-minded. He is so used to the cruelty that he seems immune, but soon he will open the wrong door at the wrong time and witness an act so terrible that he will have to leave this place, or die. His only hope of survival is to escape across the arid Scablands to Memphis, a city the opposite of the Sanctuary in every way: breathtakingly beautiful, infinitely Godless, and deeply corrupt. But the Redeemers want Cale back at any price… not because of the secret he now knows but because of a much more terrifying secret he does not."

I'm not really sure what to make of Philip Hoffmans's The Left Hand of God. It is a novel that has received an impressive share of promotion and marketing from publisher Michael Joseph (and US publisher Dutton) aimed largely at fantasy readers, but quite how much it is a fantasy story is still unclear to me even having turned the final page.

What it is, is a character driven piece of historical fiction – historical in feeling and tone, if rather rambling and inconsistent in its setting. Our protagonist, Thomas Cale, is a teenage acolyte in a cloistered religious order referred to as "The Redeemers". At first Hoffman conveys them as little more than a sect of sadistic fundamentalists - think the Spanish Inquisition - hidden away in a remote monastery (The Sanctuary), but as the story moves on they seem to conveniently grow in step with whatever the author feels the story calls for. This is a general flaw oft repeated throughout The Left Hand of God - Hoffman introduces a character or a place or a narrative concept as one thing and then allows it to morph into something else, or simply to fade away for the convenience of the story. It's a wasteful approach.

Cale lives a brutal and unpleasant life, beaten and starved by this abusive priesthood, all, apparently, in training for a religious war being waged in some far off land against some non-specific enemy. (Their non-specific nature is indeed exaggerated by Hoffman's choice of naming them "The Antagonists"). Cale has a couple of mates that he hangs around with and, boys being boys, they get up to mischief, taking chances even though the consequences here are unusually dire, perhaps even fatal. Cale, naturally, desires to escape this grey and ever threatening existence and thus Hoffman contrives the circumstances for him to do just that.

Once outside with his mates and a young woman they have rescued from a murderous redeemer, they outwit the search parties and make their way to the nearest big city, Memphis. Once there – no surprise this – Cale rises through the ranks by way of various bits of contradictory behaviour; ignorance and guile, cool and hot-headedness, brutal murder and keen-eyed politics – in short, by any method Hoffman requires in order to move to the next scene.

There is, in The Left hand of God, an elasticity to the story-telling which I found rather confounding. The setting is elsewhere – yet Hoffman uses familiar cultural or geographical anchor points. The period is sometimes medieval, sometimes Romanesque - yet Hoffman at one point describes characters wearing bowler hats. It could be that the author wishes to prevent his reader from settling into familiar surroundings – and in that he certainly succeeds, but I've read many book set in unfamiliar, made-up places, and they all displayed far more coherence in setting than that on display here.

The same criticism can be levelled at the characters in the book, and indeed the plot itself, which waxes and wanes, sometimes going this way, sometimes that. There's a lack of direction, of narrative thrust that gives the impression Hoffman is almost capricious in his approach. Cale is a very hard chap to warm to - at once shrewd and scheming, yet also innocent and unworldly. He's a character with so many facets that his face becomes blurred, his emotional centre inchoate. The reader cannot latch on to him. Other characters swap hats just as readily – Arbell Swan-Neck (Cale's love interest) hates him, then loves him, then hates him, then pretends to hate him, then loves him... IdrissPukke is vagabond then confidante then rogue then mentor... Elsewhere, plot strands are started up, focussed upon for a short time and then dropped when Hoffman seemingly decides there is more fun to be had elsewhere. What of the dastardly experiments on the young women so important early on? Simply forgotten about and unresolved. What of Kitty the Hand, criminal overlord of Memphis, built up as an interesting antagonist character, only to fade from the story?

There's a lot that doesn't work for me The Left Hand of God, but for all that, I still read through to the very end and that in itself is interesting. For all the flaws on show here, Hoffman, somehow, kept my interest. His pacing is second to none, the novel pushing forward all the time, never settling and never stalling. Sure, it jumps around, but it does engage and thus I can see its attraction. But overall, it's a five out of ten for this one – it doesn't live up to the hype.

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