Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Left Hand Of God

by Paul Hoffman


During our formative years most of us learn about the world around us, reading, writing, maths, and so on. Thomas Cale studies a curriculum of fear, injustice, brutality, and extreme violence. He learns not to ask questions at the Sanctuary of the Redeemers, where boys can be killed just for doing something unexpected.

Paul Hoffman paints a vivid and truly appalling picture of life at Sanctuary, which is actually a vast prison where boys are raised under a viciously strict regime. There are rules for everything, and breaking them can mean beatings or worse. Neither friendship nor comfort is tolerated by the fanatical Redeemers.

Thomas Cale has grown adept at looking as if he's conforming whilst maintaining his scepticism in the face of everything the Redeemers tell him. Nevertheless he's often singled out for unjust punishment, and expected to explain detailed battle strategy by his fierce mentor, Bosco.

Cale's defiant attitude is an instant hook. The sly impudence and daring of his friends, Vague Henry and Kleist, draws us in still further. When the three of them go exploring within the warren-like Sanctuary they find forbidden passages and secrets that will change their lives. If they're caught the consequences could be deadly, especially with some of the Redeemers looking to make an example of Cale. But the natural curiosity of teenage boys cannot always be contained by reason alone.

The Left Hand Of God isn't a pretty story. It starts with astonishing cruelty, leads on to horrific violence, and finished up with bloody warfare. This high level of action means the story has a great pace, but that's certainly not the only thing that makes it so attention-grabbing. It's true that it's a world with its horrific aspects, but there are also scenes of splendour or exotic peculiarity. In the debauched crowds of Kitty Town we can only guess what's meant by "burtons and their naked pikers", "bawlers with their loozles", or "a pigeon in a packet of two", but the suggestions are tantalising. Places in this novel are described with wonderful colour and gusto, so they hold you in their spell.

Thomas Cale's world is sort of our own, although mostly not. The city names are the same as places on Earth, and the Redeemers worship the Christlike Hanged Redeemer and live like monks. It's a medieval-style world where wars are fought with bow and arrow and sword, and horses are the fastest mode of transport. The Redeemers are at war with the Antagonists, and it's a conflict that has dragged on for decades without any meaningful change.

One thing that's conspicuously absent is magic. This isn't the kind of story where some sparkly effects or a big, fat dragon are going to appear as if from nowhere and dole out happy ever afters. Cale and his friends have to work for every reprieve they get, although they're often just as inclined to bury themselves neck-deep in more trouble. This is the kind of fantasy that reads more like a history, although one with all the dry, dusty bits taken out and disembowelled as an example to other paragraphs.

The Left Hand Of God had me gripped on every page in its dark world of oppression, lethal intrigues and burgeoning teenage desires. It's utterly brilliant.

17th January 2011

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

  Male Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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Review © Ros Jackson

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