THE LEFT HAND OF GOD
Many reviewers have already pegged this book as the biggest fantasy release of 2010. That’s a big claim only days into the New Year but it’s not hard to see why this is book is getting so much hype.
From its opening lines we are drawn into an intense, almost urgent atmosphere as Hoffman cleverly hints at the depths and layers of the story to come. This is a world where nothing and no one can be trusted, where words can have great power but little meaning and where cynicism and dark humour are essential to survival.
Our protagonist (hero is too definite a word this early in such an ambiguous series), Thomas Cale, has been raised by the fanatical and brutal Redeemer Monks for a life as a religious soldier. Cale learned early the value of well told lie and the necessity of secrecy – skills that serve Cale well as he and his companions make their way in a world on the brink of holy war. For discretion is not the only skill Cale possesses and there are some very powerful and determined people who will go to great lengths to control him.
While The Left Hand of God reads like an epic fantasy, it features no magic and its world is more of an alternate history with a patchwork of references from Jesus of Nazareth and Jonah, to Australian place names such as Arnhem Land and The Bite. It is a novel with big ideas that are explored through its characters better than your average fantasy novel. Religion is a primary theme, driving much of the plot and shaping the personalities and motivations of its main characters. Hoffman seems particularly interested in the psychology of belief and faith and the processes of inculcation that can just as easily inspire war or charity.
Cale and his companions Vague Henri and Kleist are brought up by the Redeemers in a militarised form of religion that uses fear and guilt to mould children into unswerving holy warriors with no exposure to alternative world views. In fact, when the three escapees first meet non-Redeemers they are shocked to discover that the religion that has dictated every aspect of their lives is all but ignored by the outside world. More than this, it is treated with scorn and disgust – so much so that it is difficult for them to explain just how dangerous and relentless a Redeemer army would be.
Paul Hoffman has already proven himself to be an author with wide interests and incisive opinions in very different disciplines. His first novel, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, more or less predicted the Global Financial Crisis back in 2000 while his second novel, The Golden Age of Censorship, focused on the unusual life of the modern film censor, a job he himself performed for the BBC. The Left Hand of God benefits from Hoffman’s eclectic interests as he draws on them to give variety and depth to a host of secondary characters such as the slippery IdrisPukke, the calculating Bosco, and, my favourite, the enigmatic Kitty the Hare (“he ain’t no woman and he ain’t no hare”). The book remains centred strongly, however, on Cale – a young man uniquely gifted with the ability to kill but also a streak of humanity that surfaces unexpectedly for reasons his fundamentalist upbringing leaves him ill-equipped to rationalise.
Yes there’s a lot of hype around this book and yes, most of it has it’s seeds in the amount of money paid for the advance – a publisher who invests this much in a fantasy novel is sure to spend a proportionate amount on publicity. But this is not another Twilight or Harry Potter. (It is not even really a young adult novel, despite the teenage lead characters and the insistence of the publisher.) It is certainly and above average fantasy though and definitely worth bumping up you reading list.