The first truly hyped release of 2010, The Left Hand of God has a lot going for it - at least, on the surface. Gritty, dark fantasy cover art, great word of mouth & a tantalizing plot all add up to a lot of sound and fury. And, to give it credit, Hoffman does write a very more-ish book, fast-paced from start to finish.
The book's protagonist is Thomas Cale, an orphan in the care of the Redeemers. The Redeemers are a sinister, reclusive religious order that stress penitence & punishment (also torture and the occasional bout of pedophilia). Although the orphans are cut off from the world, it doesn't take much for Thomas to figure out that the abandoned kids are being trained into an army of killers.
The first part of the book (and probably the best), takes place in the Sanctuary. Cale and his friends scuttle around like rats - survival is their only goal. Oddly, I've always enjoyed the opening "before the prophecy happens" sections of high fantasy epics, and this is a pretty good one. Compared to Garion's kitchen or Frodo's farm, Cale's miserable orphanage is quite a change.
Fortunately for them (and unfortunately for the reader), Cale and his friends manage to escape. The latter two-thirds of the book take place in the trading city of Memphis, the vague capital of an Venetian-like trading empire. Cale works his way up the ranks (mostly by being a bastard) and somehow gets mixed up in the local politics. Eventually, predictably, we learn that everything revolves around him, and some prophecies come into play. Whew.
Unfortunately, the book relies too much on pace and energy, and not enough on plot, character development and good old-fashioned world-building. While things are constantly moving, the merest hint of a pause (say, a chapter break) was enough disruption to remind me that book wasn't actually that gripping. Cale is a bastard. There's a bit of character development, in that he momentarily reconsiders his continuous ass-hattery, but then decides to stick to it anyway. His friends are all bastards. The people he encounters? Bastards. All of them.
Besides perpetual and overwhelming bastardy, there's not much else to define the world. At best, it could be considered a vague medieval analogue (like something out of KJ Parker), but the confusing use of historical names just confuses things. Geographically, places are just where they need to be. History and society are pretty much just how they need to be at the moment, often in implausible ways. The entire Empire of Memphis, for example, refuses to believe in the crossbow. And even when demonstrated, their entire military staff decides that archery is a bad idea? Peculiar.
The Left Hand of God isn't even cinematic - it is televisual (I think I may have just coined that term) - very punchy, very hasty, but ultimately, very thin. This is good documentary evidence of the post-Wire generation of fantasy authors, but, equally, feels like an experiment gone slightly awry. With less haste and more consideration, the series could be redeemed, but that may be too much of a departure from the author's natural style.