THEY TOLD HIM HE COULD DESTROY THE WORLD
This tale that threatened to turn a fantasy trope on its head is a missed opportunity that promises so much more than it delivers.
The Left Hand Of God
(The Left Hand Of God Trilogy, Book 1)
Format: Paperback, 437 Pages
Date: 6th January 2011 (First Published 2010)
Do you know which types of stories disappoint me 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 me into the belief that I have embarked upon a journey of literary greatness, only to quickly run out of steam, before petering out, with each successive chapter becoming progressively worse than the one before; they irk me most. Would you like to hazard a guess as to which camp The Left Hand Of God falls into?
I was instantly drawn into the first novel of Paul Hoffman’s trilogy, with good reason. From the outset I was intrigued by the book’s opening premise that turns 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”, promised 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 is initially set 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 will likely be a bone of contention with some readers, because to describe The Redeemers as a thoroughly unpleasant group would be a major understatement, to say the least. So 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 they are old enough to be sent to the front-lines, as “cannon-fodder”, in a centuries long religious war against a rival religious faith 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 give 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. For reasons that I won’t spoil for you, Cale, escapes from the Sanctuary with three accomplices, and sets out into the world towards a destination where The Redeemers will not be able to apprehend them. Sadly, from this point onwards, The Left Hand Of God, slowly and steadily falls apart.
The first bump on the road I hit when Hoffman transferred his story outside The Sanctuary, was the ambiguity of the setting. For the first few chapters I was under the impression that the story was taking place in a completely fictitious world. But once Cale stepped out into that world it became a lot harder to discern if that was actually the case, or if the setting was 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 was a minor complaint that I was able to overlook.
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, I should say) a romantic comedy with little connection to the earlier events inside The Sanctuary. The less said about the fleeting romance elements, the better; I can’t take the idea of love at first sight seriously, anyway. 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, I suspect that the few genuinely funny moments weren’t intended to be funny at all. But in any event, I wasn’t laughing. The longer the lighter tone persisted the more I began to wonder to myself, what on earth was the author thinking? Yet the change of tone didn’t just alter the quality of the narrative, it also marked a deterioration in the quality of the author’s prose. The early chapters were very well written but the subsequent chapters were much poorer. It’s hard to believe they were produced by the same person.
So where did it all go wrong? The potential for a great tale emerging from the opening chapters was very much there. The mystery at the heart of the event that triggered Cale’s escape seemed like it would play a central role in the progression of the plot, yet it was never referenced again. And it is by no means the only mystery that was 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 was 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 as the story diverged so much from its initial premise, it’s hard to imagine how, or even why, Hoffman would address any of these matters in the sequels.
I’ll spare you the details of how the story evolved into the disappointment it became. I will, however, tell you that by the time I reached the end of the book, I felt deceived. The early chapters duped me into believing I was reading a dark and epic tale with a chilling mystery to unravel. Instead what I got was some kind of pastiche, lampooning organised religion and mocking its adherents. I can only offer outlandish speculation for what caused this failure; maybe the author passed away before completing his manuscript and a ghost writer was brought into finish the book? Or maybe the publisher didn’t like where the story was heading and ordered the author to change direction? Whatever the reason, it may be a while before I read the sequels because I am dreading what I 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 you lamenting what could have been. The perfect example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.