THEY TOLD HIM HE COULD DESTROY
The Left Hand Of God
(The Left Hand Of God Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 544 Pages
Date: 19th August 2010
Ever pondered what type of story disappoints a reader the most? It’s not those travesties that are bad from beginning to end, because such works can at least lay claim to being consistent. It is actually those books that start off exceptionally well, luring a reader into the belief that they have embarked upon a journey of literary greatness, only to quickly run out of steam and peter out, with each successive chapter becoming progressively worse than the one before. Now, hazard a guess as to which camp The Left Hand Of God falls into.
The first instalment of Paul Hoffman’s trilogy instantly draws the reader, and with good reason. From the outset the book’s opening premise intrigues, promising to turn one of the most common tropes of fantasy literature on its head. How many stories have been written of the young orphan with a great destiny? Fated to save the day, one way or another, in a tale of selfless heroism? Well this story’s tag-line, “They Told Him He Could Destroy The World”, creates the expectation of an entirely different journey for, Thomas Cale, the orphaned protagonist of this yarn. The first few chapters are dark and very bleak in tone, giving credence to the possibility that the author might very well take the story in a direction that would see Cale become the destroyer rather than saviour of the world.
The story begins within the confines of the Sanctuary: a male only, walled compound run by a militant religious order known as the Redeemers. The theology of the Redeemers does bear an uncanny resemblance to Christianity, and their organisational structure is clearly based on the Catholic church. This element of the world building in particular could be a bone of contention for some readers, because to describe the Redeemers as a thoroughly unpleasant group would be a major understatement, to say the least, and the brief inclusion of a pontiff-like leader who habitually refers to women as whores and sluts will certainly ruffle feathers. In fact, not a single Redeemer encountered in the book is in anyway sympathetic; they are all uniformly varying shades of scumbag.
Within the grounds of the Sanctuary, which is equal parts house of worship, boarding school and military academy, hundreds of young acolytes are indoctrinated in the True Faith of the Redeemers, until such time as they are old enough to be sent to the front-lines, as “cannon-fodder”, in a centuries long religious war against a rival religious group known as the Antagonists. The descriptions of life inside the Sanctuary for these acolytes makes for disturbing reading at times, as no one will enjoy the brutal and sadistic treatment meted out to the children, many of whom are barely in their teens. Almost immediately it is apparent that Cale is often singled out for “special treatment” by Redeemer Bosco, the man in charge of the running of the Sanctuary, who ominously bears the title, Lord Militant. As for why Cale is being groomed to be the chosen Zealot of the Lord Militant, this isn’t fully elaborated on until the very end. But, frankly, many readers will rightly have given up on the book before then.
All the problems and shortcomings of the story come to the surface once the narrative moves beyond the walls of the Sanctuary. The first bump on the road is the ambiguity of the setting. For the first few chapters readers will take for granted that the story takes place in a completely fictitious secondary world. But, thereafter, the world building outside the initial setting of the Sanctuary makes it a lot harder to discern if that is actually the case, or if the setting is in fact an alternate history version of our world. Mentions of Dutchmen and Norwegians, in addition to some locations bearing the names of real world places seemed to indicate the latter, although it’s entirely feasible that the author just couldn’t be bothered to make up new names for people and places. Whatever the case, though it’s never a hundred percent certain, this is a minor complaint that some will find easier to overlook than others.
The book’s most significant issue, which ultimately derailed the whole story, was Hoffman’s inexplicable decision to prematurely end the dark tale he began, in order to write (or attempt to write) what amounts to a romantic comedy with little connection to the earlier events inside the Sanctuary. The less said about the fleeting romance elements, the better. As for the comedy, not only are the forced attempts at humour not in keeping with the grim tone of the early chapters, they’re rarely funny. In fact, it’s doubtful whether the few genuinely funny moments were intended to be amusing at all, though few readers will be laughing in any event. The longer the lighter tone persists the more it provokes the question of, what on earth was the author thinking? Yet the change in tone doesn’t just bring about a change in the quality of the narrative, it also marks a deterioration in the quality of the author’s prose. The first ten chapters are very well written, but the subsequent chapters are much poorer. It’s hard to believe they were produced by the same person.
So where did it all go wrong? Undoubtedly, the potential for a great tale emerging from the opening chapters is very much there. The mystery at the heart of the event that triggers Cale’s desire to escape the Redeemers seemed like it would play a central role in the progression of the plot, yet it was never referenced again once the story moves beyond the walls of the Sanctuary. And it is by no means the only mystery that is dropped completely without resolution. The introduction of a female assassin who seemed to have knowledge of Cale’s origins appeared to be an important development, only for it to lead nowhere as she is unceremoniously killed off a few short pages later, never to be mentioned again. Some may argue that as this is the first book of a trilogy, the answers to these mysteries could be revealed in the subsequent instalments, but given how much the story diverges from its initial premise it’s hard to imagine how, or even why, Hoffman would address any of these matters in the sequels.
To spare potential readers the details of how the story devolves into the disappointment it becomes, it’s enough to say that anyone who reaches the end of the book, will feel deceived by it. The early chapters dupe the unwary into believing they are reading a dark and epic tale with a chilling mystery to unravel. Instead what’s on offer is some kind of pastiche, lampooning organised religion and mocking its adherents. Only outlandish speculation can be provided as to what caused this failure: maybe the author passed away before completing his manuscript and a ghost writer was brought in to finish the book? Or maybe the publisher got cold feet, didn’t like where the story was heading, and ordered the author to change direction? Whatever the reason, it’s hard to countenance how any reader could want to read the sequels without dreading what they might encounter.
In summation The Left Hand Of God is a novel that ultimately fails to make good on its early promise. It is a missed opportunity that will surely leave many readers lamenting what could have been. It is the perfect example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.