The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

★★★½

The Left Hand of God Trilogy: Book 1

Thomas Cale is sixteen years old and has spent virtually all his life as an acolyte of the Redeemers at the forbidding Sanctuary of Slotover. Brutalised, radicalised and raised to place the True Faith before everything else, Cale is just one of hundreds, thousands, of boys being trained as soldiers to fight the Antagonists on the Eastern Front. In the labyrinthine corridors of Slotover, it pays to blend in, to conform, never to do the unexpected – but Cale is an exception. Groomed by the Lord Militant Redeemer Bosco, Cale has been raised not only to be a fearsome killer but also an excellent strategist. Yet these strategies can be placed at his own service just as much as that of the True Faith and, when this protege mounts a daring escape from Slotover, Bosco is determined to get him back. Inadvertently, Cale is on the edge of plunging the world into war.

Accompanied by three other young people – his friends Vague Henri and Kleist, and the shockingly voluptuous and female Riba – Cale strikes out into the Scrublands around the keep. That three acolytes have escaped Slotover is bad enough. But they’ve also discovered one of the keep’s great secrets. It isn’t only home to a mistreated community of boys, but also to a secret realm of pampered, indulged young women – like Riba – who are raised with the promise that they will one day become perfect brides. But the Redeemers’ plans for the girls seem to be much more sinister, and Cale doesn’t yet understand the purpose of these perfumed beauties. All he wants is to get his little gang safely out of the scrub, so that they can head towards Memphis, one of the world’s greatest cities, ruled by the famous family of the Materazzi. But they aren’t the only ones roaming in the Scrublands. Chance has its own plans for the fugitives, bringing them into contact first with the sardonic adventurer IdrisPukke, and then with a massacred embassy of the Materazzi – where one very important man is still clinging to life.

Memphis, as Cale and his companions discover, is a rich and unjust place where bloodlines rule and talent is scorned without that crucial flush of Materazzi aristocracy. Arrogant and beautiful, the Materazzi have grown used to being lords of their world, and the arrival of a taciturn, violent and alarming young man in their midst is bound to breed problems. Cale has a gift for making enemies; but he is also little more than a boy, overwhelmed by the sudden bounty of the world around him and, in particular, daunted by the beauty of the jewel in the Materazzi crown: the Marshal’s daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck. Bravura and sheer violent talent combine to make Cale the unwelcome centre of attention; and, as Redeemer armies begin to mass at Slotover, it’s up to the Materazzi Chancellor Vipond to decide whether such a young man is an asset or a terrifying liability.

Paul Hoffman has been lurking on the edge of my awareness for several years now and I’m glad that I’ve finally made a start on his novels. His world is an odd one: not purely fantasy, because it’s peppered with familiar names and places (York, Jerusalem, the River Oxus, the Ozymandian King of Kings); and yet not easily mappable onto reality. I couldn’t quite figure out whether the seas and continents had changed shape, or whether Hoffman was simply naming things willy-nilly for the amusement of confusing the reader. Clearly this book is meant to take place in our world, but it isn’t quite the world we know. Could it be, like Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, our world in the very far future, reduced again to medieval technologies? Or is it our world in a parallel universe, where the power of the Inquisition has become not only religious but territorial? I can’t quite place it and maybe I’m foolish for trying, but the peppering of recognisable names makes it impossible not to be sucked into the game. Part of this playfulness may come from the fact that Hoffman isn’t actually ‘a fantasy writer’ per se: he cut his teeth as a political satirist and, going forward, I think that’s the way I have to approach these novels in order to understand them a little better.

There are many outstanding questions, as you’d expect from the first book in a series. How is Cale’s divine destiny to be carried out? And is it really to take the form that Bosco expects? Visions can be deceiving after all. What is the purpose of the girls’ wing at Slotover? I wonder whether the Redeemers are breeding them up to be wives for their young acolytes when the world falls and has to be peopled anew. But that wouldn’t explain the strange experiments being carried out on them – nor that strange sweet-smelling stone, referred to only briefly and then ‘forgotten’ about, which Cale picked up from the dissecting room. This is surely a case of Chekhov’s gun, but Hoffman seems to be playing the long game, so I imagine the mysterious stone will come into play later on. Who or what is Kitty the Hare? How will Cale’s coming-of-age continue – or will his emotions now be pruned away to favour the ruthless murderer he’s already on track to become? And what has happened to Simon?

More to come, of course, in which I hope to find the answers to some of these questions and, hopefully, a bit more clarity on Hoffman’s world (it’s probably too much to hope for a map). Satisfyingly gritty, this is grimdark fiction with a vengeance, but with an unusually clear debt to early modern European history: essentially the Counter-Reformation turned up to eleven, with added trebuchets. There is a very strong distrust of organised religion running through the entire book – not surprising, given the worldbuilding, but a theme that also seems to be present in Hoffman’s non-fantasy works, such as Scorn (and linked to Hoffman’s own upbringing in a Catholic boarding school; one hopes, one with slightly more compassion than the Sanctuary). It’s worth adding that, although the fundamentalist religion in this trilogy is recognisably Catholic, the methods and the sinister territorial creep of the Redeemers has other connotations for a modern reader familiar with the struggle against radicalised groups like Daesh. It’s an unusual fantasy series that has such uncomfortable contemporary resonances.

However, like many first books, this simply gives us a taste of the context and places all the pieces on the board. I’m curious to see what happens next…

Buy the book

Next in the series – The Four Last Things

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