The cover is literally draped in praise. The Times, The Telegraph, Conn Iggulden, Eoin Colfer. Most of it selectively quoted from a series of mediocre reviews. The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman was sickeningly over-marketed back in 2010. You could barely move around a book shop for the posters of the (admittedly pretty nice) book cover. Publishers fought tooth and nail to get a piece of what could have been “the next Harry Potter”. Unfortunately, “the next Harry Potter” it failed to be. The novel was almost universally a disappointment to several reviewers and readers. The hype which surrounded it fizzled just as quickly as it rose up, and now The Left Hand of God and its sequels are condemned to the annals of failed fantasy literature.
Frankly, this sucks, because it’s really not bad. This novel is a prime example of how money loving publishers yammering for the next big hit can completely ruin a book. If it had been published on the sly, it wouldn’t have sold anywhere near as much but it wouldn’t have been battered by critics who were expecting an absolutely earth-shaking triumph of a novel.
It was also marketed completely wrong.
The novel was in the YA section. Its protagonist is fourteen and as soon as the suits got that they immediately billed it as teen fiction. It’s really not teen fiction. The darkness and themes are harrowing, the settings bleak and dystopian and the ideas are very complex. Teens might have liked it, but it’s not for them.
The Left Hand of God follows a boy called Thomas Cale, an escapee from the pseudo-Catholic concentration camp of The Sanctuary of the Redeemers. Hoffman explores religion with a machete, creating a twisted and terrifying force which has kidnapped thousands of young boys for forced military training. Upon reaching an age at which they’re ready to fight, they are duly sent off to engage in trench warfare with the imaginatively named ‘Antagonists’ and never heard from again. Cale and his two companions, Kleist and Vague Henri escape the Sanctuary and flee to a faraway city of colours, debauchery, gambling and luxury. Memphis… Memphis. Hoffman’s naming is fantastically irritating. We have Memphis, which is one hundred miles south of… York. Inhabitants of Memphis include the inexplicable IdrisPukke, the feared assassins Jennifer Plunkett and Daniel Cadbury, the mob leader, Kitty the Hare and a high ranking army official, Solomon Solomon. I honestly feel that a rework of the names of this novel would give the entire experience a lot more depth and immersion. It’s a minor point, however. I can live with bad naming.
As it stands, it’s a reasonably good story, well told and packed with interesting concepts and ideas. It’s a bit muddled, unfortunately, and far from the watertight narrative trilogies it competes against. Cale is what brings the book up in my estimations. He is one of few fantasy anti-heroes. He’s a violent, narcissistic sociopath and doesn’t bat an eyelid while he brings foes twice his size to the ground in a pool of blood. He could so easily be a villain, but he isn’t. That’s what really stands out to me.
This novel has had a hard time, and my nit-picking over the poor naming and a slightly incoherent plot line is rather unfair. The book couldn’t live up to the hype and unfortunately that’s what killed it. It’s four years since that hype though, so why not pick it up and give it a go now? I was pleasantly surprised with the motion of the story. It’s a good, fast and exhilarating read. It’s not perfect, but it’s only a couple of things which keep it from being a highly rated book. They are quite significant things, but overall I enjoyed reading it despite its flaws. I liked the atmosphere, the characters, the action I liked in particular. It’s just a shame it didn’t live up to the impossible to reach standards it set for itself.