December 14, 2013

Review: The Left Hand Of God Trilogy by Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of GodThe Last Four Things, and The Beating of His Wings by Paul Hoffman managed an incredible feat. As a fantasy trilogy it was simultaneously brilliant and original, while also frustratingly lazy. It could have been one of the best fantasy series I've ever read, and in some ways it was, but it fell tragically short of that level... well short of it in fact.

The Good: Characters, Plot, Action

In some ways this trilogy is very similar to Anthony Ryan's Blood Song. Both involve the protagonist being raised by a religious-militaristic order from a very young age, and finding they have an incredible gift as both soldiers and commanders. They gain friends and comrades along the way, and when they are in the outside world they find themselves in the middle of a war they would prefer to avoid but inevitably find themselves right in the thick of things, gaining fame and notoriety along the way.

The similarities end there. Where Vaelin, from Blood Song, has all the usual traits of an honourable and good hero, and the warrior-priests that raised and educate him are similar in their own way, it is the exact opposite for Thomas Cale in The Left Hand of God. He was sold by his parents to a bloodthirsty and zealous religious order, called the Redeemers, raised in a brutal fashion where many children his age are starved, beaten, and even killed during their 'education'. He flees the corruption and brutality, rather than embracing it. 

Overall, the plot arcs within the trilogy are superb. It is well paced, has some nice twists and turns, and never failed to keep me engaged. It has a nation of extreme religious zealousness that it seeks to wipe out all of humanity from the earth, and an alliance of kingdoms and nations to stop them from pulling it off. At the heart of it, Thomas has to get the other kingdoms and nations to rely on him to lead the fight against the Redeemers, something that is made difficult by his nature. He himself has to rely on the politicking and schemes of his friends and allies. Along the way, there are several battles between massive armies and smaller ambushes. It has love and betrayal, heart-wrenching loss and delicious vengeance. 

The characters is another strength. Thomas Cale, the protagonist, is a very interesting and unique take on the typical hero. He is also about as far from noble and heroic as a person can be. He is petty, stubborn, and arrogant—also a teenager, which I'm sure did not in any way exacerbate those qualities. He does not seek to stop the Redeemers from wiping out humanity because it is the right and noble thing to do, he acts for vengeance against those who abused him and so people will see his greatness and rely upon it for their survival. 

Alongside Thomas are two of his friends who raised by the Redeemers with him, and two politicians and masters of intrigue that meet them as they first escape into the outside world. There is Thomas' love interest, which takes a dark turn of jealousy and spite, and the many other interest groups who come to see Thomas as their only salvation but who want to use them to their own ends. As a whole, the caste of characters is well balanced and quite original from the usual archetypes and tropes you see in fantasy. 

The third main strength of the series is the action. The battle scenes are exquisitely etched onto the pages, with plenty of variety so it's never stale. Hoffman does a great job in creating very detailed and sophisticated settings and scenarios, where the weather, terrain, tactics, equipment/technology, discipline, and sheer blind luck all factor into the outcomes of each engagement in different ways. For the most part, the battles are treated in such a way that you are given an omniscient view and description, where you are told the mindsets of both sides involved at any given time rather than constantly switching POVs. Only occasionally will it focus in on one of the main characters and their specific actions and feats and concerns. It was a very different treatment than I'm used to reading, but was well handled and executed. 

The Bad– Oh Who Am I Kidding The Rest Is Just Ugly.

I mentioned before that this series was both incredibly interesting and original in some ways, and I listed those above, and also frustratingly lazy. This section will deal with the latter. Mainly, it comes down to the world building. And by world building, I mean taking real-world, historical cultures, kingdoms, nations, and peoples, and doing a CTRL+V onto the pages. The plain copy-paste attitude is usually only superficial, but also at times mixes them together in an extremely odd fashion.

Here's a list to give you an idea of what I mean:
  • After escaping from the Redeemers, Cale and his friends go to the heart Materazzi Empire: the city of Memphis. And the leader of the empire is called the Doge.
  • Throughout the world are the Jewish people, who are bankers and moneylenders and often persecuted by other religions in the world.
  • Within the Materazzi Empire is the Norse, a warlike nation of people in the cold north, with beards and axes and... you get the point.
  • There is also the Laconics, who raise/train their citizens from a young age to be warriors partially out of a sense of glory, and partially because their entire economy is based on the slaves–called Helots–that do every other task. The Laconics are constantly paranoid that these slaves will revolt. They also kill any infant born with a defect, and have a tradition of homosexual relations before they're old enough to marry. They're Spartans through and through.
  • There's the kingdom of Switzerland, who always try to remain neutral in the affairs of other nations and kingdoms. 
  • Finally, the weirdest example came in the form of a scholar/engineer. He was convicted of heresy by the Redeemers, for claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Even though everyone, even the Redeemers, knows that this is true, because the head of their church–called the Pope–declares that it's the other way around, his word is law. So the engineer's words that contradicted the Pope's are heretical, and he has to be killed. Thomas Cale saves him, hoping he can use his engineering to build war machines capable of helping combat the Redeemer armies. In a discussion with Thomas, the engineer explains the world is made up of matter and atoms, and that he'd really like to make a giant metal tube in which he can smash the atoms together to find out more about them. He's talking about a freaking Hadron Collider... in a medieval-style world. 
Those are only some examples, the most obvious ones that I recall to my mind. I know there are others, but you should get the point by now.

Initially, when I encountered this in the books I didn't really care that much. Sure it was a bit weird, but fantasy can be weird by itself when people make up names and cultures and peoples and places that are obviously inspired by historical elements, sometimes as blatant as in this series.

But the more and more I encountered them, and the more Hoffman mixed Ctrl+V'ing with his actual original world building, the more annoying it became. For example, the king of the Laconics (read: Spartans) was not Leonidas or some other famous Spartan name. No, it was King Stuart-Clarke of course! Then there's the Materazzi Empire, comprising a number of historical people like the aforementioned Norse, which is run by the Doge (a title given in historical times to the elected leader of the Republic of Venice) and has as its capital city a place called Memphis (the name of a modern American or ancient Egyptian city). There's also the freaking Hadron Collider! A GOD DAMNED HADRON COLLIDER!

In truth, if all he did was just straight up borrow the superficial names and concepts of historical people and places, I'd probably have been fine with it. And if he did that for everything in his world building, that would be fine too. It's the fact that he did it half-and-half: half of the time, he'd make up his own concepts for people and places and give them his own names, like the Redeemers. The other half, he'd suddenly feel lazy and just look up some wikipedia articles on real-world history and use the ol' Ctrl+C and its partner in crime Ctrl+V. And what made THAT even worse was the fact that he mixed and matched things: an empire that he made up, with an emperor's title used for an elected leader in a historical republic, and a capital city named from an ancient Egyptian or modern American place. 

The inconsistency was truly baffling, and made utterly inexcusable by the fact that the rest of the series he created was so utterly brilliant. 

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