If Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God were a movie, its audience would have lots of reasons to walk out well before the credits. It’s a big mess of a book with major flaws in nearly all aspects: plot, character, world building, and pace, to name a few. Yet somehow, and I have yet to figure out how, it kept me marching through it, and damn if I wasn’t a bit curious about what would happen in the sequel. The Left Hand of God was such a mixed bag, though, that I confess that feeling of curiosity was a bit disappointing. I’d thought I could be done with this story and move on to better written material.
The Left Hand of God centers on Thomas Cale, a 14-yr-old boy living in the Sanctuary of the Redeemers, a huge fortress whose lords brutalize their captives to train them in the name of the One True Faith so that they may fight a seemingly endless war against the Antagonists. Cale has been singled out for years by one of the chief Redeemers, but that’s about to end as he escapes the Sanctuary with two other boys and a girl. They flee to the city of Memphis, which is filled with icy beautiful women, armored and arrogant nobles, corrupt and licentious buyers and sellers of just about anything. It’s the perfect place to get into trouble, which Cale does, even as the Redeemers do everything they can to get him back.
Where to begin? Cale is all over the map as a character. At times he’s a 14-yr-old boy, at times a man two or three times that age. At times he’s a ruthless killer afraid of nothing, at times he is literally paralyzed in fear. He doesn’t grow much from start to finish, though I think we’re supposed to feel he does (we’re certainly told it). And his character is not deeply explored, for all that we spend pages and pages with him.
Most of the other characters are even more undeveloped. Cale’s two male friends are almost non-existent, and when they are around are mostly one-note characters, as are the two female characters. With the exception of a pair of brothers, and the Redeemer who lavished his brutal attention on Cale in the Sanctuary, there is little to capture your interest or concern about any of the characters.
The world building is not only minimal (no real sense of the citadel, of Memphis, of the desert-like scablands, etc.) but also frustrating in its odd mix of made up and real world names.
The plotting, like the characters, is also all over the place. It opens with a strong sense of urgency as we quickly move from the brutality of the Redeemers to a horrific discovery by Cale to a tense escape and then to, well, a lot of waiting around. A lot. The waiting is punctuated by a few scenes of action and a few scenes of pretty clichéd and trite budding romance. Then there’s a scene that appears to be set up for some tension but is over in a matter of seconds. We get that scene’s opposite toward the end of the book in a plodding battle scene that many will recognize from history, which raises the question of why it needs to be replayed here at such an agonizingly slow pace. But then we get a great reveal toward the end, along with a “could see that coming from a million miles away” rescue. There are major issues with pacing, with plausibility, with tension and release, with balance, and with cliché.
Hoffman’s prose is serviceable, with no really vivid or poetic description and conversations that are usually so terse or so repetitive (Cale’s two friends basically say the same two or three things again and again) that they don’t really offer room for sharp language or wit. And the narrative voice is also a bit sloppy, slipping around in distance, style, and tone. And I could have done without some of the folksy direct address.
So what to say at the end? I can’t say I was driven to read to the end, but I was a bit curious as to what would happen to Cale, enough not to put the book down. But I was also never unaware of just how poor the actual writing itself was — not tear my hair out, throw the book down bad but more than enough to detract from the reading process. My recommendation therefore is to hold off on The Left Hand of God and see whether the author makes some major improvements in book two. There’s just too much good stuff out there to recommend something that is much weaker in comparison.