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.