The Left Hand of God
Paul Hoffman, read by Steve West
Penguin Audio/Books on Tape, 2010
Alternate reality, pseudo-history, or distant future Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God takes known elements of Christianity and history and weaves them into a dark and fascinating story that will grab you and drag you forward. Thomas Cale is an orphan apprenticed to the Redeemers; a harsh order of warrior monks and fanatics devoted to a twisted version of Christianity (with definite Catholic overtones) to the point of fanaticism. Subject to cruelty not limited to daily beatings and insufficient nutrition, Cale is finally confronted with a horror even he cannot tolerate. The resulting conflict sends Cale and his friends Vague Henry and Kleist on the run into a new and dangerous world far different from what they’ve experience at the Sanctuary.
The Left Hand of God is not a happy book. Cale is subjected to abject cruelty and Hoffman’s clear and unflinching prose describes the beatings and harsh indoctrination to the teaching of the Hanged Redeemer in no uncertain terms. Narrator Steve West quiet, staid voice gives that unrelenting prose the sense of a secret being told the listener and left me almost leaning forward to listen in anticipation. While there are many great audiobook narrators out there it is always a wondrous thing when a publisher manages to pair together an author and narrator whose distinctive styles mesh into a synthesis that elevates the talent of both to a level beyond the text. Such is the case here and I expect that I connected more with this book through West’s narration than I might have had I read the novel myself.
Cale is a fascinating character who we observe from the outside. While the third person narration frequently offers insight that we wouldn’t normally have it remains curiously pulled back leaving us to guess at Cale’s true motivations and highlighting his moral ambiguity. Indeed, as we learn more about Cale he becomes something of an avatar of violence; neither good nor bad outright but unpredictable and nigh inscrutable. His humanity seems scoured away by the brutality he has experienced at the hands of the Redeemers; a fact accented by the disturbing “gift” he displays as the novel wears on. That lack of humanity in what amounts to our main character is highlight by his companions Vague Henri and Kleist who offer both compassion and humor respectively to balance Cale’s cold and dour demeanor.
For all of Hoffman’s clarity in describing the brutal violence of his world he has some frustrating tendencies; particularly a habit of building up a scene a bit more than necessary. This was most notable in the buildup to Cales fight against Solomon Solomon in the arena. The description of the arena and its inhabitants, while apt, only served as a means to delay the confrontation itself. Once that confrontation did occur I felt that the added description did little to enhance what occurred. Similarly he occasionally veers away from the main characters to focus on inconsequential minor characters notably during the final climatic battle at the novel’s end where again I felt that diversion offered little in service to the events that eventually occurred. Again, as if in contrast to his clear vision, Hoffman has a tendency towards vaguery when it comes to the world at large and curiously leaves some plot points unexplained. At its best this leaves the reader fascinated and hungry for more information about a specific character. Particularly with Kitty the Hare I felt that Hoffman’s lack of a complete description aided the aura of menace to the nefarious figure. At the same time the mention of the “heretics” in the Redeemer Sanctuary is a fascinating angle left largely unexplored. Beyond the acknowledgement of heretical practices Hoffman doesn’t explain the strange item Cale finds during his initial escape from the Sanctuary, the presence of Riba, or what the aims of the heretics actually were.
None of the above really detracted from my overall enjoyment of The Left Hand of God. While the world building leaves a lot to be desire and is more than a little confusing the strength of Hoffman’s prose allowed me skirt around the problem with no (or at least very few) qualms. Not quite fantasy, not quite historical fiction The Left Hand of God is a dark book that mature readers, adult or teen, will like find enjoyable. The audiobook version is a wonderful production and Steve West’s narration is amazing and engaging. The saddest thing about The Left Hand of God, and probably my only complaint, is that I’ve heard absolutely nothing about the sequel.