Tagged: Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman (Penguin, 2010)

Being an acolyte at the Sanctuary of the Redeemers is not what might one call an enjoyable experience. A bland diet, a brutal training regime and the possibility of sudden death at the hands of sadistic priests, where survival only results in being sent off to fight in a holy war.

Thomas Cale is one such acolyte, a quiet boy who happens to be gifted in the art of killing people. When he is talked into exploring the Sanctuary by two other acolytes, Vague Henri and Kleist, the trio stumble upon a dark secret and are forced to escape to the city of Memphis.

There they find adventure, vice, hijinks and romance but the Redeemers are not yet done with Cale. He is the key to their ultimate victory over their enemies the Antagonists and perhaps the harbinger of Armageddon itself.

With two novels behind him, Paul Hoffman’s first foray into the fantasy world appears to be aimed at the young adult demographic but has been pushed quite hard at the adult market as the next big thing. It could appeal to the former being as is a fast-paced boy’s own adventure, but at the same time its deployment of epic fantasy cliches, thin characterisation and ill-judged worldbuilding makes for a poor showing against other recent genre fiction.

Spending pages and pages laying out your world in unnecessary detail is a charge often levelled at sf, pithily summed up by M. John Harrison as “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. On the other hand, it is necessary to develop a believable setting that holds veracity for the reader and Hoffman fails to achieve this.

Perhaps detail was kept to a minimum to avoid scaring off non-genre readers. However it is not the level of detail so much as the consistency that frustrates. At first giving the appearance of a pure fantasy with the Christ-analogue Hanged Redeemer and the warrior priests that worship him, it scatters a liberal number of jarring references to real-world places and historical figures: Memphis, Odessa, Norway and Poland are mentioned alongside Gypsies, Jews and Jesus himself. Geographically, the book is scattershot with its places and use of distances, which merely compounds the haphazard nature of the setting.

This mix-and-match approach is also taken with prose to an equally discordant effect. Cale’s retort of “I could care less”(p9) being the prime example, along with modern idioms such as “living the life of Reilly” (p158) and “playing possum”(p239). Vague Henri is also referred to as a “sniper”, a term that originated around the time of the British Raj. I’m not usually a stickler for correct language usage in historical fiction or fantasy, but this really did destroy any sense of immersion from almost the very beginning.

Hoffman isn’t going to win any awards for style, but he maintains pace throughout the book, inserting action sequences periodically to keep things moving along. Sticking to swords rather than sorcery, the fantastic elements are virtually non-existent, perhaps in keeping with the minimal worldbuilding, but a prophecy rears its head at the end of the book which is a little much to take on top of Cale’s otherworldly brilliance. Some actual character development would have been a nice way of balancing this out, but that is something else that this book is missing. The acolytes don’t grow in any way as a result of their adventures, and indeed Cale finds himself back where he started with nothing to show for it.

In summary, the book is a confused mess, not knowing which demographic to go for and not having the confidence nor quality to comfortably appeal to both. Purely out of curiousity and some degree of masochism, I’d still like to see where Hoffman plans to take the series, but based on this first installment I would happily live in ignorance unless things drastically improve.

This review was originally published in Vector 264 (December 2010).