Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Book Review: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

[Buy this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"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."


Expectations are high for The Left Hand of God, almost unbearably so. Some have tipped it as among the most anticipated new fantasy novels of 2010, and from the outside looking in, it's not difficult to see why. Here in the UK, Penguin Books have embarked on what is reportedly the single biggest and most expensive publicity drive in the publisher's long history, taking in the most mainstream ad campaign I've ever seen employed for a piece of speculative fiction short of a new Stephen King; not to mention a series of viral trailers you'll find infecting the likes of YouTube and DailyMotion and even, bafflingly, a iPhone app.

The premise, too, sounds appealing. Tailor-made, one might go so far as to say, to hit home with fans of speculative fiction; Hoffman has a check-mark in all the right boxes. There's a chosen one with an impossible love interest and a pair of unwilling allies caught in the middle of an epic battle between powerful opposing forces set against one another; there's a touch of alternate-history about the world Cale must navigate, yet a whiff of the real world rendered unreal in the mode of so many superior narratives.

In short, The Left Hand of God arrives carried aloft by a wave of high hopes and great expectations, but it is far from the equal of either. The Guardian observes that "it might have been planned by a focus group," and reviewer Patrick Ness is right on the money; everything about Hoffman's highly-anticipated genre debut seems calculated to win over fans of speculative fiction, and perhaps it may have, had it not a myriad of other, more commercially viable target markets in mind. Penguin Books only stands a chance of recouping the massive financial investment they've made on The Left Hand of God if it sells fantasy to the masses in the same way they bought into the horror genre via the likes of True Blood and Twilight. This is that book.

None of which, come right down to it, is really Hoffman's problem, but that his publishers have pitched The Left Hand of God far too hard is only the tip of the iceberg. As the action shifts from the sickening training camp at Shotover Scarp to the burlesque streets and alleyways of Memphis where Cale finds refuge from the Redeemers, Hoffman seems to lose sight of the sliver of promise that had speckled the narrative's first act. The pace set by his protagonist's attempts to escape chokes at the sight of the city and soon stalls entirely

For the larger part of The Left Hand of God, in fact, Cale and his companions do... nothing. They wait. Sometimes they talk about not waiting, but decide, invariably, to wait a while longer. The days, weeks and months wasted away in Memphis only serve to pad out the first volume of a fantasy series of indeterminate length; without them, Hoffman's novel would be comparable to a YA effort, and a slim one at that. Perhaps Penguin, seeing some potential in the draft presented them, had its author divide The Left Hand of God down the middle and demanded that Hoffman fatten up the remainder for fear of putting off fantasy fans whose eyes light up at tomes fit to work as well as doorstops as narratives. But I digress - speculating about where it all went awry will do little good.

Hoffman's prose is rarely more than competent. It chugs along like a train-ride to nowhere; eventually, it gets you where you're going, but the awkward stops and starts that punctuate the journey are infinitely more memorable than the supposedly striking vistas glimpsed along the way. His idea of character development never amounts to anything greater than a bit of clumsy exposition that states how and why Cale or one of the forgettable supporting players have changed their outlook. And the worst is yet to come.

As I've said, The Left Hand of God meanders woefully on its way to the inevitable battle between the legions of Redeemers and the armoured Materazzi of Memphis who Cale has inexplicably taken to advising, but when that climactic encounter finally arrives, the pay-off is unspeakably disappointing. Hoffman's clumsy narration during this sequence shifts to an equally ineffective eagle's-eye perspective; he recounts the clash as if it were an historical event occurring in the far distance of time and space.

Still more distracting is the way in which the author's numeric obsession, heretofore only an occasional obstacle, wins out as the irresistible force of the Redeemers meets the Materazzi's immovable object. After building up to this battle for so long, when it comes to the actual article Hoffman seems content to simply relate the mathematical composition of each army; the referential number of each regiment; even the ages of each soldier. Once you've noticed the author falling back upon the presumed safety of the numbers that were so pivotal in his previous work - a book which apparently "predicted the collapse of the world financial system" - the numbers here, there and everywhere become impossible to ignore.

There are occasional glimmers of something worthwhile in The Left Hand of God, but for the most part, Hoffman's first genre novel is derivative, distracted and downright dull. This early in the year, readers are no doubt keen to latch onto the next great fantasy; assuredly, however, this literary identity crisis falls far short of that high watermark. In all likelihood Penguin's disproportionate publicity campaign will persuade enough readers to buy The Left Hand of God that sequels will come along to resolve the many plot threads left unresolved by this disappointing volume's abrupt conclusion, but unless Hoffman hones the scattershot craft he exhibits herein, I truly don't think I'll care enough to find out.


The Left Hand of God
by Paul Hoffman
January 2010, Michael Joseph: London

[Buy this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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  1. Do you think we're supposed to be disconcerted all the way through it by imagining the hero of Memphis getting headbutted by a French footballer for cursing his mum?

  2. Ah, football humour, eh? Thanks to the Google gods that I know even that much. Not a sports fan, I'm afraid - unless competitive reading counts as a sport these days... in which case I'm a pro.

    Oh, the horror of having to read through this one, and all for the love of blog.

  3. I'm glad I read your review, that book was on my 2010 reading list (sadly simply because of the hype) and now it's off.

    By the way, good job with the blog, I added the link in my blogroll.

  4. For some reason I wasn't sure about this one to begin with. I can't even remember why? Something I read - maybe it was about the author - put me off. Anyway, thanks to your review I'm really not going to bother trying to cram this into an already very tight schedule. Cheers!

  5. Oh my. I seem to be putting an awful lot of people off reading The Left Hand of God. What awful power is this? Damn my eyes!

    No, in all seriousness, this is not a good book. I rarely put a book down before it's done, but I wouldn't have finished this mess of a debut were it not for the other bloggers tipping it as one of the most anticipated fantasy novels of 2010.

  6. Oh bugger. I have just bought it...

  7. That's a bit discouraging, I must say. I should point out the fellow above me, though, something I've been learning in my early days as a writer.

    Reviews aren't everything and everything a reviewer hates you won't necessarily dislike.

    This comes with two comments: one, I have not read Left Hand of God and two, this is most definitely not a slight or a discouragement of Mr. Alexander or his fine blog. He definitely does a service here, as do all reviewers, but that service is still giving us his opinion, not necessarily telling us what to buy.

    The biggest thing I've learned so far is that the phrase "different strokes for different folks" (or blokes, if you're inclined) is not just a phrase as it pertains to books: it's a goddamn mantra.

    Everyone gets some negative press. This is because what is written just doesn't work for everyone. Some people want grittier, some people want more angst, some people just want something closer to something they already know. As a result, I don't really take any review as negative anymore, because for every point that a reviewer says is not good, someone else says: "shit, that's for me!"

    Admittedly, Mr. Alexander's review was a bit harsh and he's absolutely correct to tell you exactly what he thinks of a book; if he coddled you, he'd be a fraudster, and sentenced to the eight level of hell to be sodomized with hot irons. But that doesn't necessarily mean *you* won't like the book.

    That went on a bit, didn't it? The point of this all is that you shouldn't feel poorly for buying a book that someone later didn't like. There are tons of popular books out there that I absolutely could not bring myself to like.

    Besides, even if you end up hating it, you'll want to keep it around, because you *will* find a sentence you just truly hate and someone *will* eventually ask you what the worst book you ever read was and you *will* want to have it on hand to quote from.

    -Sam Sykes

  8. Admittedly, though (and I should have voiced this earlier, apologies), if you find that you share enough of an opinion with Mr. Alexander that you're wearing the same underwear, you, my friend, are fucked.

    -Sam Sykes, again

  9. Never be ashamed of writing what you think, Mr Alexander. I've got some truly scathing reviews on my blog (Mr Horwood, I'm looking at you!) but you have to say what you think. I hated the second trilogy of the Duncton books by said Horwood, and wrote that, but I've found glowing reviews of the same on the Net. Like Sam says, different strokes blah blah blah. By the time all the reviews are done for a book, there are usually views from one end of the spectrum to the other. Never lose your integrity and soften your views - but, equally, try to find at least one positive thing about a book and mention it, because then you are being more objective.

  10. This one of the books that are on my reading list for 2010. I heard many things about it and I will give it a try as soon as I get a copy of the novel. And sometimes a negative review makes more curious about a book ;)

  11. There's a 36 page excerpt of the book available on Penguin's site if people want to try it. I tried it a few weeks back and didn't find it remotely interesting and am thus puzzled by the big push behind this novel.

    Interest review by the Spec Scotsman anyway, maybe it is aiming too many arrows at too many places. For me though, I just didn't care for the writing itself.


  12. The synopsis seemed promising and I actually managed to enjoy the excerpt, but not enough to pay for a hardcover. Already decided that if I pick this up it will be through the library. It is nice to see negative reviews, especially when they go counter to the one other source of discussion for the book I have kept an eye on, which is a font of positivity in comparison.

    You are certainly a better reviewer than I. I lack the tenacity to stick to a book I dislike and they are quickly shuffled out of site and onto the Pile of Shame to be forgotten.

  13. The push seems to be working, according to yesterday's paper it is selling really well (top ten UK hardback).

  14. @ Martin - Yep. And no surprise, really. Thing of it is, I doubt it's selling so well to us. The marketing has ensured than more than merely those with an eye for SF&F know about The Left Hand of God; I'd put money down that the most of the sales are from non-genre readers who've been bullied by the billboards and bit the bullet on the relentless Amazon ads and offers and the like.

    Although I suppose if Hoffman's novel opens the eyes of readers who wouldn't otherwise have looked twice at fantasy, The Left Hand of God is serving a fine purpose, whatever its failings.

  15. On the other hand, if the novel is rubbish (and the consensus seems to be that it is) is it opening people's eyes or reinforcing their existing beliefs?

  16. Better late than never? Maybe not, but I wanted to mention my experience with the book. It was rather odd in that I read quickly through the first part in a day, and about the halfway point just lost all interest, put it down, never picked it back up. I think it was all the waiting, or the bad romance, but the book just fell apart. I didn't know anything about all the publicity; I found it in my library. Anyway, I probably would have hated the ending judging from what you posted about the sequel.

  17. I am so glad that someone else beside me thought this book was useless. I cared about nothing and no one in this book. It was easy to read but impossible to care about. I do not mind dark nihilism if there is something to ponder. Other than trying to rest out symbolism about how awful the church was before it was a politically neutered, which is at best a stretch and old news, this book was just dark and silly. I sure would not call it fantasy. And i hate the term speculative fiction, that is so PC speak meets marketing in its attempt to spin essentially fantasy, horror and science fiction into a hipster category. I know Heinlen first coined the term in 1941 blah blah blah. I has been reinvigorated so that different types of stories can be sold without falling into traditional set of biases assigned to other category names. Ugh -- everything about this book is just sort of Useless to me. Sorry. Some folks will like it for its unrelenting darkness, but I am so over that personally. I know all of us are worried and more than ever life is full of broken families and clashing cultures even inside the supposed melting pot of the US. But mindless darkness is not useful or entertaining and I do not get this book.

  18. For some reason I wasn't sure about this one to begin with. I can't even remember why? Something I read - maybe it was about the author - put me off. Anyway, thanks to your review I'm really not going to bother trying to cram this into an already very tight schedule. Cheers!