There’s a reason so many fantasy writers are turning to the dark side these days: It works. Terry Goodkind’s tree-slaughtering Sword Of Truth series only really comes to life when it descends into sadomasochism, and George R.R. Martin’s brilliant Song Of Ice And Fire series is a catalog of misery and woe. It could be a fluke, or it could be the general modern tendency to equate narrative cruelty with depth, but for whatever reason, Paul Hoffman’s newest novel, The Left Hand Of God, certainly delivers the terrible goods. Thankfully, unlike Goodkind, Hoffman has more to offer than ugliness. There’s gloom aplenty here, but it’s tempered by a sly wit, complex characters, and a narrative engine that grinds all objections to dust.
While sadism in the genre is a comparatively late development, suffering children have been a staple since the Brothers Grimm first put poor Hansel and Gretel through their paces. God begins with a group of boys getting beaten into manhood by a group of religious zealots intent on producing soldiers for a righteous war. Cale, the young hero, has been set apart from the others, but it hasn’t made his life any easier. His and his friends’ existence is pitiless and without joy, until one day Cale opens a room, makes a decision, and expands his horizons considerably.
Telling more would be a disservice to would-be readers. There are plenty of familiar elements in God: Cole is arguably a “Chosen One,” the setting is roughly medieval, and Hoffman throws in occasional modern references to make the era and circumstance of his setting intriguingly ambiguous. What makes the novel work is that the storyline keeps subverting expectations in satisfying ways while still holding onto a feeling of timeless tragedy. As the first part of a trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger, but the final twist isn’t a cheat. Instead, it’s the natural development of an increasingly epic tale, full of grand passions that twist in the hand like a knife blade. Regardless of whether Cale or any of his companions have a chance for a happy ending, God provides enough reason to risk emotional investment, and that’s always been the real reason Martin’s books work: Readers don’t love the dark so much as they love the hope that sooner or later, the sun must rise.