Thursday 18 February 2010

The Left Hand of God - Paul Hoffman

“The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a vast and desolate 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.”

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman has been held up to be one of the great fantasy debuts of 2010 and received rave reviews from other authors as well as more conventional reviewers. It received an extensive marketing campaign and was generally hailed before its release as one of those books that everyone MUST read. Unfortunately, since its release, many people have stepped forward to list the numerous ways in which it does not live up to the hype – and I’m afraid I must join their ranks.
There was some part of me almost determined to like The Left Hand of God, being as so many other people had declaimed the turgid prose, the stilted characterisation and the slightly baffling plot that leaves you wondering at the end why you have bothered to read four hundred odd pages when the main protagonist finds himself back where he started. However, this is a hard book to love – or even like very much.
Usually when writing a negative review I like to offer the points from the book that I did, at least, enjoy. Here I’m struggling to remember anything that moved my emotions. If all else fails and I can’t find any positive elements to focus on I will retreat to the comfort of mentioning the cover art – but here we have the much-derided hooded man (and I still remain childishly amused by the fact that the book is called The Left Hand of God but the character on the front is carrying that honking great sword in his right hand! Still just me? Well, alright then...)
My most damning comment on this book is one of apathy: I could very easily have put The Left Hand of God down at any point and not felt too dismayed at never knowing what happens at the end. Let me put this into context – I can count on one hand the books I have not finished. I feel that if the author has gone to the trouble of writing a novel, then I should respect their effort and give it a fair chance. With Paul Hoffman’s book it was only pig-headed stubbornness that had me turning the last page.
I did not enjoy the crazy mixed-up world building that had Memphis and York right next to each other. I do not know what Hoffman was trying to achieve: was he so lazy as to not be able to make up names for his cities? Or was he going for the truly symbolic and I just missed it? My over-riding impression is that Hoffman felt he was doing something ultra clever but it just came across as pretentious.
There have been a couple of books in recent times that I have read, wondering if he author (while writing the novel) had half an eye on the screenplay of the movie that would be made: The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spring to mind. This book can now join their ranks. There are panoramic sweeping shots of the countryside described lovingly (a la The Lord of the Rings films); some market shots that bring to mind Tatooine; and some truly awful training montages that I can hear the inspirational 80s power chords for.
I hated the way that Hoffman dealt with women, including one cringe-making passage:
“Our skin must be without flaw, our hair shiny and manageable [which sounds like a hair care advert], we must have wide bright eyes, our cheeks pink, our breasts round and large, our buttocks large and smooth and between our legs, under our arms, nor anywhere else except our heads were we to permit the growth of a single hair. We must be always interested and charming and always smell of flowers. We must never be angry or scold or be critical of other people, but kind and affectionate and always ready with kisses and tenderness.”
“How,” asked Vipond, “did you practise your... tenderness? If you had no men?”
“On each other, sir.”
Oh come on, Mr Hoffman! Let’s first objectify women as sex objects and then throw in a little casual titillation. Way to go!
And I leave you with another quote that caught my eye: “As for smoking – it is a childish affectation: a habit loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, causes the breath to stink and makes any man who takes it for long enough effeminate.” That’s right, kids: smoking is BAD. Hoffman’s message here is extremely clumsy and almost shoe-horned into the plot for no good reason.
Harry Sidebottom (author of the Warrior of Rome series of books) states on the back of The Left Hand of God: “If you do not enjoy this book something has died in your soul.” Well, I’m proud to say that my soul is completely dead – and Paul Hoffman killed it. Avoid this book.


  1. Agreed. I read this when it was advertised in the apple app store for some strange reason and (unlike yourself) was unable to bring myself to finish it.

    It just felt... dull. Not exactly the most description word but that's how this book came off to me. Dull, grey, boring and with little reason.

    On that note, it was the cover that first caught my attention. I quite like the purple.

  2. Regarding geography, I was under the impression that it was Memphis, Egypt and York, England. I didn't find a problem with the geography but then I just took it down as uninspired city names. Didn't even consider the possibility that it took place in the US. I will agree with you that the distances travelled between cities was implausible.
    While the story was not ground breaking, I still enjoyed it for what it was. Sorry that you didn't.

  3. Oh, the prose is devastating to the mind. It feels as if I have hit my head somewhere. And those bits about the women and smoking => Juvenile. Seriously if it means to have a dead soul to not love this, then I don't want to be alive. *shudder* I am so not buying it. My TBR is overfilling with books I actually want to read to bother with this.

  4. Yikes! That is definitely a cringe-worthy paragraph! I'm most likely ordering this for our library's collection, but it will be interesting to see how it does.

  5. Ouch! I haven't read this book yet, and I almost think that's a blessing rather than a detriment. Your reviews of the books I have read match up with my opinions enough to make me trust your judgement somewhat where recommendations are concerned, so I suspect that if I buy this book, it'll simply be for the bragging rights of having sat through the whole thing.

    I can definitely agree that the section about women that you quoted does make me cringe, but I've read a few books in my time with sections that are similar, where their point and presence is to make people all the more aware of just how stupid it is to believe that's all that women are. Maybe that's what the author was going for here, and just failed miserably.

    And really, who the heck talks like that woman anyway?

  6. Wow, thanks for the review. I was thinking of grabbing this book but held back.

    Glad I did. The cover looks cool though :D

  7. Phew - glad I didn't shell out bucks for a copy of this. I've been close a couple of times. Thanks for the in-depth review. And the warning.

    Still cringing at the paragraph you quoted - is the language really that tedious?

  8. The language is all like that. Unfortunately.

    Sorry to all those who are now not going to pick up the book, thanks to this review. Sort of hoping you had doubts anyway before reading the review - don't want to have the awesome responsibility of denying an author new readers... But I doubt that my reach is *that* far ;-)

    Thanks to all for taking the time to comment!

  9. Your bad review definitely trumps my bad review!

  10. We're playing top trumps with our book reviews now? ;-)

  11. Nice post. I liked the book more than you did (my review is here ), but some of the points you make here are spot-on. The stuff with the female characters was especially aggravating: at first, it seemed like Hoffman might be doing something a touch subversive: using the situation of the uber-objectified girls at the Sanctuary to explore the effects of objectification (much as he does, quite well, with the brutalisation of the main character). But instead what we got was a succession of references to how 'plump' the girl who escaped was, paeans to Arbell's impossible beauty, and barely a line of dialogue or a scrap of personality between them.

    The line about smoking is actually a direct quotation from King James I, who was a bit ahead of his time in his attitude to tobacco. :-) Unfortunately, the way Hoffman used it came across as the author winking at me: "Look! It's okay! I'm not taking this fantasy stuff *seriously* or anything!" Especially coupled with the, as you note, oh-so-dismissive approach to world-building.

  12. Thanks for your comment, Nic! I've taken a look at your review as well - looks like we fundamentally disagreed on the entertainment value of the book! I really had to struggle to get to the end.

    The comment you make about the smoking quote is interesting - I had no idea that it can be attributed to King James I!