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The Left Hand of GodAuthor: Paul Hoffman

Title: The Left Hand of God

Publisher: Penguin

Paperback: 437 pages

ISBN: 978-0-141-33355-7

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 06/01/2011

Thomas Cale, The Left Hand of God’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, was brought to the dark and labyrinthine Sanctuary of the Redeemers when only a few years old. Half monastery, half brutal military training ground, the Sanctuary is a breeding ground for young warrior-monks. Basically a dark Hogwarts! A place of violence, deprivation and cruelty, it is run by the Redeemers – religious fanatics who rule with an iron-fist and use Inquisition-style methods to implement their ‘teachings’.

And Cale is one of their star pupils. Until one day he opens the wrong door at the wrong time and witnesses something so horrific that he knows that he must flee the vast and remote Sanctuary…or die.

The opening chapters in the Sanctuary of the Redeemers are really strong – claustrophobic, gothic and dark. Reminiscent of the oppressive environs of the Benedictine monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I found Hoffman’s descriptions of the Redeemer’s customs and surroundings completely gripping. In particular, the sadistic, quasi-father-son relationship between Bosco and Cale was brilliantly drawn and fascinating.

The problem though, was that as Cale and his companions escaped from the Sanctuary, I found the world-building becoming less focused. Within the structured, closed-off walls of the Sanctuary, it felt as though the interplay between the Redeemers and Mediaeval Christianity was far more tightly controlled and thought through by the author. But once outside of those walls, the level of detail given to describing the world in which Cale [who had no previous memories of living outside the Sanctuary] now found himself, felt a little underwhelming. It is, in essence, a quasi-Mediaeval world, with references to Spanish and Dutch culture and locations, although it is kept quite vague as to exact locations and there is no map in the novel to aid the reader in relation to how the world is set up.

Added to this, I sometimes found that the way in which the plot evolved in the last third of the novel ended up feeling slightly jumpy – and that the book almost felt a little on the short side [certainly by fantasy standards]. And this was especially true when comparing the Materazzi sections of the book with the far more assured and detailed opening half of the book in the Sanctuary. It felt as though the second half of the book, the relationships and the plotlines, could have been fleshed out much more.

But my biggest personal gripe came from the use of a third-person omniscient narratorial voice. Maybe it is just my inner pedant, but I have always railed against the use of wandering POV – where an author flits between the interiority of multiple characters within a single scene. And, for me, I just felt that the narratorial voice used in The Left Hand of God just made the action all feel a little removed and distant from the reader [something that might not have been the case had Hoffman used first-person narration to bring the reader inside specific character’s interiorities].

That being said, and despite these reservations, I did enjoy The Left Hand of God, and will definitely be reading the next books in the trilogy. But I felt that, after the really strong and intriguing opening to the novel, it didn’t quite carry through on that promise in quite the manner that I had hoped that it would. So, in the end, I felt that this was a strong and enjoyable read – based on a really clever premise and with lots of gritty action and characterization – but that it didn’t quite make that step up to something more.

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