This month's recycled SFX review is of The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman. A major marketing push (including what seems to have been quite a big mail-out of ARCs) means that it's had a lot of attention in the fantasy blogosphere over the past few months. Some of the attention - generally, I think, the more thoughtful - has been quite negative.
For my own part I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's uneven and a tiny bit smug - having one character appropriate James I's views on smoking ("a habit loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain" etc) struck me as a bit too Look How Clever I Am, for example - and its gender blindspots are depressingly familiar. But it's fast, involving, and on a sentence-by-sentence level pretty well-written; it's formulaic fantasy, but hides it well.
This review first appeared in SFX issue 192 (March 2010 - and no, I've no idea why the March issue has been and gone before the end of February, either...).
There aren't many 400+ page fantasy novels you could gobble down in under two days, at least not with your brain engaged. Happily, this is one of them.
In an alternate seventeenth-century Europe, brutal wars of religion are raging between the Catholic-esque Redeemers and their Reformed opponents, the Antagonists (we suspect that isn't what they call themselves). In the Sanctuary of the Redeemers, a teenage boy named Thomas Cale lives a vaguely Dickensian life of unfulfilling meals, arbitrary punishments, and the sort of military training that would make Rambo feel inadequate. He has, of course, a destiny.
Left Hand has many of the trappings of 'young adult' fiction: adolescent protagonists subverting a confusing, hostile adult world; growing pains as a major theme. Still, there's a degree of grimness here that may be too much for younger teens: not so much the violence, which is pervasive but for the most part inoffensively cartoonish, as the central act of it that sets the plot in motion.
Despite the dark tone and the slightly fussy omniscient narration, which increases the sense of a nineteenth-century novel in genre fantasy form, this is an extremely fast, fun read. The writing is vivid and atmospheric, and the world as it unfolds is fascinatingly rich. It's often clumsy in its haste; some of the dialogues about religion are wince-inducing, and the female characters are all pitiable victims or attractive scenery. The romance on which the later part of the story pivots is also deeply unconvincing. But plot and pace are so compelling that it's easy to glide over these problems. And lurking beneath the surface there are some thoughtful depths about abuse, desensitisation, and trust.