Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

The rise of fantasy has, in my opinion, produced two kinds of cliche-oriented reactions within the publishing spectrum: entertaining, inventive, and/or enjoyably derivative trilogies, and fascinating ideas and worlds mired by barely serviceable prose, lackluster plotting, and/or a general failure to maintain cohesion (in the plot, worldbuilding, character development, and/or the writing). Both groups aren't always separate, since sometimes a book with weak prose can still be a thrilling read, but usually they are. Unfortunately, I think The Left Hand of God fits into the latter of the two groups.
Because the synopsis plays a role in my review, I'm going to post the version on the inside flap of the U.S. edition of the book:
In the Redeemer Sanctuary, the stronghold of a secretive sect of warrior monks, torture and death await the unsuccessful or disobedient. Raised by the Redeemers from early childhood like hundreds of other young captives, Thomas Cale has known only deprivation, punishment, and grueling training. He doesn't know that another world exists outside the fortress walls or even that secrets he can't imagine lurk behind the Sanctuary's many forbidden doorways. He doesn't know that his master Lord Bosco and the Sanctuary's Redeemers have been preparing for a holy war for centuries-a holy war that is now imminent. And Cale doesn't know that he's been noticed and quietly cultivated.
Then, Cale decides to open a door.
It's a door that leads to one of the Redeemers' darkest secrets and a choice that is really no choice at all: certain death or daring escape. Adrift in the wider world for the first time in his young life, Cale soon finds himself in Memphis, the capitol of culture-and the den of Sin. It's there that Cale discovers his prodigious gift: violence. And he discovers that after years of abuse at the hands of the Redeemers his embittered heart is still capable of loving-and breaking.
But the Redeemers won't accept the defection of their special subject without a fight. As the clash of civilizations that has been looming for thousands of years draws near, a world where the faithful are as brutal as the sinful looks to young Cale to decide its fate.
It sounds intriguing enough, and Hoffman's book does deliver on a number of the points described above, but overall, The Left Hand of God falls desperately short in three key ways. The first failure has to do with point of view. While the synopsis indicates that Cale is the main character, Hoffman's writing fails to adequately display that, almost as if Hoffman didn't seem to know who the book was supposed to be about either. The first quarter of the book does focus on Cale, but the rest of the novel switches randomly from POV to POV to give the reader the thoughts of basically anyone in the room at that moment, or even people who are completely insignificant to the actual plot. None of this is done between chapters, which might have been okay, but within chapters, sometimes between paragraphs, and sometimes between sentences. One second we're hearing Cale's inner thoughts, and the next it's someone else. And before you can grow used to the transition, Hoffman switches again. From a purely stylistic standpoint, this is simply poor writing for two reasons: 1) trying to tell your readers everything everyone is feeling about everything sucks the life right out of the story, because very little remains a mystery, and 2) switching POVs in the middle of paragraphs is unnecessarily jarring and almost as annoying as inconsistent tenses. Sadly, Hoffman violates one of the golden rules of writing on a routine basis in order to give as many perspectives as possible--i.e. "show, don't tell." I suppose you'd have to in order to perform the aforementioned task, but breaking the rule so clearly, with no regard for its eccentricities and ambiguities, is careless. The prose suffers as a result. The Left Hand of God also suffers from narrative inconsistencies. For example, the synopsis indicates that Cale isn't aware of the world outside of the sanctuary. The problem? This isn't actually true. He doesn't understand the customs of the cultures that exist beyond the walls of sanctuary, sure, but, as we learn later in the book, he is both aware of the outside world and instrumental in the Redeemer's plans for those places (i.e. he actually designed their plans). This leads me to another inconsistency, which is Cale's fighting ability. When Cale first exhibits these abilities, it's a shock both to the reader and to the non-Redeemer characters. Why? Because it's never mentioned beforehand. One moment he's just some poor, beaten-up, grumpy guy, and the next he's the Roman equivalent of a ninja. It's all rather convenient, and obviously so. Narratives aren't supposed to be convenient. They're supposed to feel believable. Nothing should feel as though it doesn't belong. The last problem I had with The Left Hand of God was the general unbelievability of some of the events that occur throughout the narrative. Characters do things that are completely contrary to who they are, despite Hoffman's attempts to establish them as pretty clearly in one particular form. Perhaps the worst instance of this is when Hoffman writes the Materazzi as a Spartan-esque warrior class, but then proceeds to have them lose a battle in the most idiotic manner conceivable--a thing that no military of the Materazzi's caliber would do. Likewise, characters fall in love at random, sometimes despite legitimate reasons why they shouldn't. I may have rolled my eyes more than once while reading. The point is, Hoffman's novel regularly devolves into nonsensical plot points, which sucks it dry of the potential established in the first chapters--the strongest part of the book is the beginning. The Left Hand of God isn't without positive qualities. Hoffman does have a knack for tension, and, as I've just mentioned, the beginning third of the book, while a tad long, is quite strong and intriguing. Plus, the interior of the book is quite beautiful, with nice texture for the pages, an awesome map, and a good design for the pages and chapter headings. But it's not enough to have some great ideas, a relatively strong beginning, a nice interior, and a few generally entertaining sections. A novel needs to be more than that, and, unfortunately, I don't think The Left Hand of God comes close to meeting the burden of minimums. The biggest problem for me is that I had high hopes for the book. It had a lot of potential and there truly were some good moments. But I ended up being disappointed and thinking that this isn't the right direction for fantasy at all. Let's keep the mediocre writing standards to the vanity presses, please. If you want to learn more about The Left Hand of God, check out its website.


SQT said...

Such a shame. This is one of those books I considered requesting for review, but passed on due to my already overwhelming pile.

The shifting p.o.v. sounds like the thing that would really drive me nuts. I'm a linear thinker anyway so it would have been tough for me to gut it out.

Sullivan McPig said...

sounds like I should stay far away from this book. I hate POV switches that do not serve a purpose other than letting you know what's going on.

Steve Malley said...

Problems like that are one of the main reasons I've had such a conflicted relationship with SF/F-- the genre has produced some of the most memorable books I've ever read, but I often feel like I'm wading through lukewarm porridge to find them...

S.M.D. said...

SQT and Sullivan: It drove me up the wall. There is absolutely no good reason to switch POVs like that. It's lazy.

Steve: That's why we have these review blog things, so you don't have to read the bad books. Think of it as a voluntary torture.

BStearns said...

Must say, glad I have no intention of picking this book up. When you have to go to the design of the map, and the layout of the chapters to find something that is good about a book, something has gone terribly wrong. Thanks for the review.

Simcha said...

I've read so many reviews of this book that I almost feel like I read the book myself. It's just that I can't decide if this is a book worth getting or not because the reviews have been pretty mixed, admittedly though the majority have not been flattering. But after this reviw I think I'm just going to pass on this book for good.