Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a harsh, cold and unforgiving place where young boys are raised in a lifetime of cruelty and never-ending martial training, being moulded into fanatical servants of the One True Faith. One student, Thomas Cale, and two of his friends escape from a life of unremitting bleakness in the Sanctuary to the great city of Memphis, capital of the Materazzi Empire, where their formidable skills soon attract the attention of the Chancellor. When the Redeemers launch a suicidal attack on the far larger and more powerful Empire, Cale's skills are called upon to help divine the Redeemers' strategy, and some of Cale's darkest secrets are revealed...


The Left Hand of God is the third novel by Paul Hoffman, although his first genre work. It's being given a massive push by Penguin, with one of their biggest-ever marketing spends, and the book has already attracted acclaim from a number of (notably non-genre) authors who have provided cover quotes of varying coherence.

After finishing the book I am hard-pressed to answer why Penguin have done this. The book isn't totally awful. It is competently-executed, making up for workmanlike and occasionally terrible prose and simplistic characterisation with some occasional (but usually pretty brief) bursts of ingenuity and inspiration. It's also extremely familiar, with different parts of the book being very similar in parts to R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing Trilogy (the fanatical and martial training of the protagonist and the overall religious theme), Peter Brett's The Painted Man (the dubious and redoubtable nature of the badass protagonist), and Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind (the slightly tiresome Gary Stu nature of the protagonist, without the likability), without coming close to any of those works in overall quality.

On the downside, the book is riddled with notable flaws. Characterisation is all over the place, with the protagonist Cale being a supremely cold and confident badass, apart from one particular fight where he quakes in terror for no apparent reason. The characters completely fail to change, grow or develop in any particularly notable ways, with Cale being a dreary and unengaging protagonist at best and his love interest Arbell Swan-Neck (so-called because she is as beautiful as a swan, which is about as much description as we get, leading to an image of a woman with a two-foot-long neck) being cliched and insipid, as indeed all the female characters are (in fairness, the males are not much better). Some other characters, such as Chancellor Vipond and the punctuation-challenged IdrisPukke, are more interesting with doses of decent humour and intelligence, but are not at the centre of the action. In addition, the story is somewhat obvious and predictable, with our runaway heroes fleeing from their terrible childhoods to find sanctuary and a place of acceptance only for their enemies to catch up with them later on. And, of course, it turns out a prophecy is to blame for all that is going on.

The worldbuilding is bizarre. Hoffman uses a lot of real-life names in the book for places and historical figures, including Poland, Norway, Hungary, Jerusalem, Memphis (a city in Egypt), York, the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth (who in this story was swallowed by a whale, apparently taking the place of Jonah) and so on. There is no map (in the review copy anyway), but the descriptions of geography in the book bear no resemblance to Europe, eliminating the possibility of this being an alt-history. Whilst it's possible there is some intriguing metaphysical reason for all the real-life names in the book, based on Hoffman's limitations as a writer in other departments, I'm going to go with a lack of sufficient inspiration and imagination being responsible. This also explains why the climactic major battle in the book is a simple blow-by-blow retelling of the Battle of Agincourt rather than being anything original either.


It is also hard to discern who the book's target audience is, since the limited writing style and simplistic characterisation suggests it might be aimed at children, but then the sequences of torture, rape (not depicted, but frequently mentioned) and bloody nature combat suggest otherwise.

On the plus side, the book is readable in a sort of dull, David Eddings-slightly-past-his-best kind of way. It plods along, and there's the odd burst of reasonably well-described action to keep up the interest whenever it flags (which is often). But overall, The Left Hand of God feels like a novel that was designed and assembled out of a kit pack, with the Ominous Prophecy bolted onto the Dubious Protagonist, with the Hamfisted Religious Satire slotted in as well. It's all very perfunctory and totally lacking in passion or urgency. Indeed, to borrow one of the more nonsensical cover quotes, the book feels like it was written after something had died in the author's soul. Interestingly, the novel also recalls Lev Grossman's The Magicians (although that was a much better book, despite its enormous flaws) in feeling like a genre novel written by a non-genre writer to appeal to non-genre fans. Fantasy readers used to the rich prose of Bakker and Martin, the infectious enthusiasm of Lynch, the bloody-mindedness of Abercrombie or the sheer awe-inspiring scope of Erikson will rightly feel that is a mediocre work of limited merit, although not completely without the promise of later improvements by the author.

The Left Hand of God (**) is a work of impressive drabness and unoriginality. There are flashes and glimmers of inspiration here and there which suggest that Hoffman may have a far stronger work in him, but this is certainly not it. The book is available now in the UK and will be published on 15 June 2010 in the USA.

23 comments:

chris said...

For the love of god another cover with some guy with a Hood!? Got way beyond a joke now.

Anonymous said...

Materazzi Empire? So either this author isn't familiar with one Marco Materazzi, the Italian footballer infamous for getting head-butted by Zidanein the 2006 World Cup final (ie he spent that particular summer on a different planet than this one), or he thought nobody would notice?
There are a fair number of ridiculous names in fantasy, but this one takes the prize.

Adam Whitehead said...

@ Anonymous: Good catch. I hadn't spotted that :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Ouch, if non genre readers get the impression that this is the best Fantasy has to offer, they'll miss out on a bunch of books even non genre readers may like. Because they won't touch anything labeled Fantasy again. :(

N. R. Alexander said...

This.

This exactly.

Glad to hear I'm not the only blogger to have found TLHoG quite such tepid tosh. The reviews in the papers and magazines here in the UK have been almost uniformly positive, which I can only suspect means no-one in professional literary criticism will stoop to reading genre fiction unless it's forced on them by a massive publicity push.

A very fine review, Werthead. And not just because we agree!

hampshireflyer said...

Wow, I'd already been irritated by the names when I was commenting on another blog, but that was just Memphis and Materazzi... Poland? Norway? Hungary? Good grief.

Liviu said...

While I disagree strongly with this review and I thought TLoG an excellent novel that will make my top 5 fantasy novels of 2010, I want to point out more stuff:

- the village executions are strongly inspired by Katyn and more generally the NKVD ones, especially as done by one of their main field executioners Blokhin

- the quote mentioned with the "soul" is a US Civil War reference from a letter

TLoG is quite apart from the standard fantasies mentioned here (Bakker, GRRM...) and in so far that it has an analogue the Scavenger trilogy by KJ Parker would be closest. Though it's early to say if Mr. Hoffman will build a portfolio of novels very different from the rest of the fantasy field the way KJ Parker has done so far, I am very happy to see a novel like TLoG from that point of view too

I also agree that TLoG is aimed at a mainstream audience to a large extent so it does not conform to the obsessive "cross all t's and dot all i's" that mar a lot of secondary world epics in hundreds of pages of unneeded detail...

All in all a very polarizing novel and I'm in the camp of superb and A++ and the sequel highly, highly awaited one

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with everything in this review, but the characters did nothing for me either...the love(?)story was ridicilous and the interaction between the characters was at times, well, cringing...I read this book rather quickly, there was some good stuff in there, but after I finished it the story left me rather cold...And the names were as mentioned not very inspiring either...Certainly not a A++ in my book, but then, tastes differ...

Adam Whitehead said...

An important difference being that KJ Parker is an exceptionally good writer with a good handle on character, motivation and war.

Hoffman, based on this one novel, would not know these concepts if they dropped onto his head from low orbit.

Erik said...

"TLoG is quite apart from the standard fantasies mentioned here (Bakker, GRRM...)"

Bakker and Martin... standard? They're far from it in my opinion.

Liviu said...

"Standard" Fantasy (generally secondary world, though alt-earths, or space colonies that lost technology appear here and there) follows some clear patterns - eg bloodlines are bloodlines, kings are kings, the setting is consistent pseudo-whatever...
Even Kelhus would have gone nowhere if he had not been accepted as a foreign prince by the nobility there, while in GRRM for example pretty much all the movers and shakers are nobles and actually a lot of the intrigue is due to some of them trying to ascend on the gradation scale so to speak...

Then there are books that mix pre-modern hierarchical attitudes with modern egalitarian ones and more generally mix and match stuff from various eras - eg The Castle series of S. Swainston, The Wanderers and Islanders series of S. Cockayne, Gears of the City/Gilman are some recent examples that I loved a lot and TLoG is an example of this.


Again it may not work for you but trying to pigeonhole TLoG to this or that seems beside the point; I liked the writing too, very energetic and with lots of twists and turns and that counts a lot for me as opposed to more technically accomplished but lifeless writing...

Alec said...

Liviu has some good points, but I have no idea how he gets off calling the writing energetic... the narrative felt like a poor mix of Harry Potter meets Ender's Game.

Honestly, I was scared you were going to go with the "flawed but.." take on tLHoG that has been fairly predominant in blogosphere reviews. I am glad you didn't.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the use of "real" names is an attempt to mimic Robert E. Howard's "Hyborian Age", which frequently borrowed names from either real places and people (the "Cimmerians"...) or from classical mythology.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Perhaps the author's contract obliged him to come up with this story.

PeterWilliam said...

A review which has spawned much thought on my front. I'd read some things that made me hesitant to purchase. I'd read Liv's review, which has been, nearly always gold for me. Something kept me distant from this one though. Thanks, Adam, for a bold review. Even if I never purchase or read this book, it will have been one of the more considered and pondered (in terms of whether or not to buy) books I've encountered.

Tree Frog said...

Out of the few SF series to get major push for the first book from a publisher, which ones have actually been good?

I'm not as tuned into the publishing world as you are, but I recall John Twelve Hawks writing a few atrocious books a while back.

N. R. Alexander said...

@ Tree Frog - An astute question. I can't think of anything offhand, though of late The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms seemed to get a decent bit of promotion - or perhaps that was just blogosphere buzz?

For my money, I think it's only now that publishers are starting to see that the right book might do for the fantasy genre what Twilight and Sookie bloody Stackhouse has done for, um, fanged fiction. Roll on the first one to actually deserve the hype; certainly the Left Hand of God isn't it.

Adam Whitehead said...

THE NAME OF THE WIND got a huge push, particularly in the USA, and even if it wasn't the Second Coming it did turn out to be reasonable in quality. Going back further, GARDENS OF THE MOON, A GAME OF THRONES and THE EYE OF THE WORLD also attracted big marketing pushes when they were first released.

Anonymous said...

My 12 yr old has read it 4 times. He challenged me into reading it. Yes, I squeezed in sometime in between & managed to finish it. Eventhough sometime quite dull in between, consider not too bad a book.. If parents can accept those PC games with so much more violence, don't see why this book not suitable for tween..

Mark said...

First time poster and I have to say I disagree with the review and thats what made me post. I thought this book was a breath of fresh air. I think you should re-read it as a comedy, perhaps a comedy of errors and perhaps a satire on the genre. I found it hilarious in both dialogue and plot. The characters, while simply presented, are real enough to sustain the humour.

Its been badly marketed by Penguin who have equally badly understood it.

I thought the use of real world names made the world less distracting than the usual and highlighted the genres over use of elaborate naming.

Arbell Swan-Neck was adequately described for her purpose and the explanation of Cales episode where he "quakes in terror for no apparent reason" was obviously explained. In fact the latter example is described so obviously that you cannot possibly say "no apparent reason" without having skipped a paragraph.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm a genre fan, a known geek and a massive fan, like you, of Steven Erikson, China Miéville and many, many others. How though you can give the vile, poorly implemented, bandwagon jumping, "Nights of Villjamur" 4.5 and this only 2 is beyond me.

Someone try it in the manner I've outlined and give me some feedback. For me it was a cross between comedy and Gemmel, a fast read, and hugely enjoyable. A bit dark in places for the under-teens perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic book. Crap review.

Adam Whitehead said...

Awful book. Mediocre comment.

Lonely said...

What I got from the review was someone was very disappointed that they did not come across another fairytale. I personally enjoyed it greatly. The minor yet existent plot gaps or questions that may rise are answered in the second and third installment. For all I know TLOG is original because of the very "flaws" mentioned above. It's world is dark and miserable yet real, and all characters act just as real people would under the same circumstances, not like ideal heroes.

BTW Cale crumpled in fear for he had something -Arbell- to loose in the fight with Solomon Solomon. He had a reason to live for, unlike back in the Sanctuary where he did not care whether he'd live to see another day.