Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Left Hand of God - a compelling, but grim tale

The Left Hand of God
By Paul Hoffman
New American Library (2010)

Review by Clare Deming

The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman, blends aspects of our own world into a fantasy setting for a dark tale of deprivation, violence, and revenge. This is distinct from urban fantasy, because although the components of this world are not terribly exotic, it is not our world at all. Technology is at a medieval level and nobility rules the land, but there is neither magic nor monsters here.

The story follows Cale - an adolescent boy who has been raised at the Sanctuary of the Redeemers. The Order of the Redeemers and their strict religious dogma resembles Catholicism, but taken to a brutal and authoritarian extreme. At the Sanctuary, boys are trained for war against the Antagonist, but many do not survive this schooling. Those who do have lived a harsh life, abused and indoctrinated, and know little of the outside world.

Singled out by the Lord Militant, Redeemer Bosco, and trained in strategy and combat, Cale discovers a forbidden section of the Sanctuary. He is accompanied by Kleist and Vague Henri, the closest things he has to friends. When Cale is sent to the Lord of Discipline, he fears that his transgression has been discovered.

However, he surprises the Lord in the midst of a terrible act of torture and violence that is beyond what even the Redeemers sanction. Cale is left no choice but violence. He slays the Lord of Discipline, but must leave the Sanctuary, along with his friends and Riba - a girl that they discovered in the forbidden wing. She is the first woman that any of the boys has ever seen.

The book tells of their journey into the rest of the world, the great city of Memphis, and the politics that they find there. For the rest of the world is aware of the Redeemers, and fears the expansion of their war campaign.

Despite all the bleak facets of the plot, there is also a love story. However, I found this to be the least convincing part of the tale.

This book drew me in and I found it to be quite compelling and well-written. The mistreatment Cale endures at the hands of the Redeemers creates instant sympathy for him and his friends. Even though he is violent and sometimes savage, he is never truly cruel. By the end of the book, Cale learns to think about the implications of his actions as he discovers that the world is different than the Redeemers had portrayed.

The last criticism I'll mention (and it was only a minor annoyance) is that many of the place names are those of real places. We have the Appalachian Mountains, Memphis, York, and others, which made me search for symbolism or a hidden association. Yet as far as I can tell, there was no such significance to the names. Additionally, the map at the beginning of the book did not correlate well to the descriptions of the world in the text and I would have been better off to avoid referencing it.

The Left Hand of God is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book, The Last Four Things is available now in hardcover and e-book editions.

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