I made a false start with my challenge. I started on a book, Farlander, a fantasy about a bunch of theocratic warriors in a fantasy, or something like that. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t read it. The style was just too overwrought for me, so I decided to pick something different.
My wife asked if I was open to suggestions about something to read, and I was – so long as they satisfied the guidelines. She presented me with three options, and from those I chose The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman – a fantasy more or less about theocratic warriors.
Thomas Cale is special. Clever, but impatient, and fairly brash. A big deal is made about how prideful he was, but I didn’t see it. He’s got a talent – a few, even – but it’s perfectly reasonable that he acknowledges it – false modesty wouldn’t serve much. He is detached, even sociopathic, and is not given to half-measures. He is a boy, but a boy of action- doing things without seeming like a conscious participant in theevents around him.
At the same time, he is a shell of a person. It’s easy to picture his accomplices; Vague Henri, Kleist, and to a lesser extent, Riba. Not Cale. He isn’t merely a brilliant tactician and accomplished killer though – he’s a chosen one.
It’s a ride. There’s some preciousness with the character, who is both a cheeky child and surprisingly empty. He’s empty. It’s amazing to watch (well, read) in the same way that throwing a bear into a packed lecture hall would be.
I liked how the setting was introduced gradually. We start in small spaces, situations, with our mind’s eye gradually drawing back for a better view of the Sanctuary – the world’s worst boarding school slash orphanage, and then the general placement of other areas, while keeping the forboding “Eastern Front” as both a mystery and potential threat. The story felt like low fantasy, and arguably is so, though additional research states that it is set in a post-apocalyptic Europe. That’s not apparent from the first book, though there were many references to Earth. They are jarring, because after the factions of Redeemers and aptly-yet-poorly-named “Antagonists” were presented, you don’t expect to hear mention of Norwegians and Jesus.
There’s always something happening, though the arc being presented for the characters and the story lacks focus. Circumstance put the three boys on the path away from the sanctuary, hoping to reach a city. Chance (or Fate, woooo ghost noises) sends Cale into the path of one of the Redeemers, who is in the midst of an unexplained ritualistic murder (which isn’t explained in the book at all), that forces the group to fast-track Cale’s apparently longstanding escape plans.
Most of the obstacles the group encounter are episodic. Cale leaves the group, and the others worry something will happen or that he’ll abandon them. Worry ensues, and then – he returns. On the way to the city of Memphis, the group gets captured by soldiers – who conveniently take them to Memphis. They also happen across a character that can help ensure some safety for them once they reach that city. Even without knowing the obstacles before them, or that the book was part of a trilogy, I (after the first few chapters) never felt the core characters were in any danger. I only see character growth in Riba, who goes from pampered girl to mysteriously talented maid, and finally confident character.
There is a change in Cale at the end, but it’s too big and yet also without clarity. Redeemer Bosco reveals that the reason he had been abusing Cale all these years is because he received a prophecy that a boy would be sent from God to purge the world of evil. Surprise, it’s Cale. Naturally Bosco takes to beating Cale, and admonishing him for having any pride, for how dare the skilled, nigh-invincible warrior boy sent from God think he’s special. The nerve!
I’m also not sure of what I think about the romance between Arbell and Cale. The initial meeting was good, though Cale suddenly discovering emotions? And then happily jaunting off to rescue the kidnapped Arbell? Oh, and yes – can’t forget that Cale then props himself up as her protector based on the idea of a false attack that conveniently becomes a real one.
It’s not a bad book by any means. It’s just a lot to ask for something that almost comes full circle for a revelation that could have happened in the first chapter. The sidekicks, the love interest, the emotionless brutality, it all feels like a distraction to the story that Hoffman intends to tell. There are great ideas here too- the massing of acolytes at the sanctuary, the idea of the reserves being built up in preparation for a great war… it’s good. There are just too many distractions here, and the feeling that the near-500 pages is in an exercise in tangents. As a milieu, it would work great (though again, less so as future earth instead of either alternate earth, or simply elsewhere).
One of the things that I did really like about the story, despite the retrospective strangeness of his actions given his revelation at the end, was Redeemer Bosco. There was something approaching a teacher/student relationship between him and Cale, and a feeling that he was up to something when he set the exercises for the main character. There was intrigue in trying to determine what the character was up to, and with the mention of the antagonists, it seemed as though the war-plans being thrown together were for the war against the Antagonists.
The first few pages of the book are in your face, grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you to say LOOK, YOU’RE READING SOMETHING THAT WAS WRITTEN! RIGHT NOW!! A very intrusive narrator who thankfully slides back into the background soon other.
Obviously throwing the revelation of Cale’s nature at the start of the book means abandoning most of what happened, which we don’t want to do. I think the flow here is that we don’t learn this until the end, and that’s when Cale learns it. If the reader knows it ahead of time, perhaps before either the duel with Conn Materazzi, or Solomon Solomons so there’s the idea that this boy Cale has been sent by God, and THEN inflicts a bunch of death and vengeance. Otherwise it serves little purpose other than a) what a twist! And b) To Be Continued…
The problem is that as a twist, it adds nothing. If Vague Henri was the boy sent by God, that would floor you – since it would suggest the Redeemers tried to make Cale a cold-blooded killer to protect Henri, whereas with the youngest and most skillful Cale, it’s just another title.
The Left Hand of God does have great atmosphere though, and maybe that’s why it is palatable. There’s depth to the setting, details that turn the world it takes place into something more, though it doesn’t seem like that’s the point of the book as there aren’t enough details about the world it takes place in. It’s an Earth, but we’re never told that, or told how things got the way that they are. It’s an easy read, but once you’re through it, there’s nothing compelling enough to make you want what’s next. There’s a sequel with a third on the way this year, but not sure if I’m drawn to the world presented enough to read them.
What would have made that different?
A resolution that didn’t make the rest of the book seem like it was stalling for time, which would mean moving the revelation of Cale’s true nature to an earlier point. That would also give the story a chance to make that revelation mean something, instead of promising it’d be handled in the next book. More clarity around the redeemers and setting would have been helpful, but so would have explaining what the characters knew.
As a reader of this book, you’re given a very limited perspective on what’s going on, and it always seems like the characters are holding back something from both you, and the other characters. It leads to a lot of questions, that end up being revealed at certain moments for the sake of creating a forced surprise. Oh, that’s why Cale was in shock. Oh, that’s what Bosco’s been on about.
Oh, that’s what the author is trying to do.