Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Left Hand of God

Not to be confused with The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursala K. LeGuin, which I hear is a lovely book; one day I'll actually write a review of it just for the excuse to read the thing.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 1.5 stars
Length: Longer than it needs to be (400 pages)
Publication: June 15, 2010 from Dutton
Premise: Thomas Cale has been raised as a Redeemer in an enormous prison, trained to be the perfect warrior and killer. Escape is too dangerous to attempt until he comes across one of his teachers dismembering one of the first women he's ever seen. He, two fellow students, and a young woman from the locked-off part of the building have to flee in order to escape being tortured and killed, but life outside the monastery is more difficult than any of them had bargained for.
Warnings: Minimally detailed dismemberment, lots of discussion of death by torture, implied child prostitution, massacres.
Recommendation: Give this one a miss. It has some interesting ideas in the beginning, but it turns into deathly dull work to read when none of the characters grow into actually interesting people.

This one has a few spoilers down in the red pen section when I start in on the female characters, so if you're planning to read the book then I'd recommend skipping that bit.

What makes the opening of this one fraught with potential: 

The book opens on the teenage Cale in the Redeemer Sanctuary, which is almost a vivid enough setting to be a character in its own right. Boys under the age of ten are brought to the Sanctuary--whether they're kidnapped or given up willingly is unclear--and expected to learn how to fight in the ongoing holy war or die along the way. They struggle with vile food and brutal beatings for minor infractions; full Redeemers can kill any young acolyte who does something unexpected, because unusual thinking is dangerous. The boys cannot even have friends, and the Redeemers introduce traitors to trap other boys into demonstrations of friendship like talking and playing games so that they can be beaten with spiked gloves. The harshness is all the more poignant because it's been going on for time out of mind, with ancient corridors being walled off and then re-opened when the Redeemers step up their recruitment and need more space. Cale, Henri, and Kleist manage to stay safe as allies of sorts, helping each other in secret acts of defiance.

Given the penalties for being caught, the boys tend to mostly keep their heads down and accept smaller punishments to avoid being publicly tortured. Their stubbornness runs deep, however; they try to embarrass the masters without being obvious about it, taking even small victories as the only form of revenge that won't get them killed. This grimness plays up Cale's determination. Even knowing that escape is almost impossible, he spent years collecting hair from the drains he was cleaning and braiding it into a two-hundred-foot rope to get over the walls. Cale's combat skills, while imposing, are inborn and possibly supernatural; however, the sheer bloody-mindedness necessary to make plans like that is all his own, and it's most present in the sanctuary where he has to fight to make any choices. His escape is the product of research, desperation, and a strong stomach, traits that set Cale apart from many other protagonists. The escape is successful, even when they take along a girl who had been raised in the secret half of the sanctuary (no, I have no idea why it exists), though the boys are captured by other warriors in the wilderness and brought to a city, where they are used as bodyguard-esque figures.

Cale's rough determination is good in combat, but it tends to leave him adrift in society, where he's expected to have graces that he never learned. He'll often say without boasting or cushioning that he's the best at what he does, no matter who's listening; that assurance has its flip side when he encounters women. The boys in the sanctuary were comfortable being abrasive and demanding of each other, but acting that way around women doesn't work, and the ensuing awkwardness does a great deal to show that he's still an inexperienced teenage boy. Cale's fumbling helps demonstrate the realism of the political situation as well. People in power are accustomed to receiving deference, so having to give respect of any sort to a commoner with no manners sticks in their throats and creates problems for him. Hoffman does a good job showing how tradition can bind a society into rigidity, giving opportunities to some and not others regardless of their talents. He also acknowledges that some of the elite are there because they deserve it, governing with extreme cunning and moving like acrobats in seventy pounds of armor; it can be difficult to acknowledge social injustice while making most of the people in a society decent, but it definitely works here.

Most of the other characters are forgettable and generic enough that I won't recall their names in a month, but IdrisPukke (yes, that's his name), a silver-tongued wanderer, is delightful. He manages to be curious and arrogant even while tied to a horse and under threat of death, and it works without making him unrealistic. His plans have gone sideways enough times to leave him no safe haven; he's wanted in every corner of the earth but refuses to regret it, instead doing things like trying educate Cale's palate with elaborate improvised dishes when they're miles from anything resembling civilization. While IdrisPukke is out for himself first and foremost, he's willing to take risks on kindness and hope that it leads to favors later. His dry wit is some of the only humor in the book, and it really shines; a book focused on him could have been great.

The red pen:

Although the opening sequence in the Redeemer Sanctuary provides some of the best flavor, the logic of the place just doesn't hang together. The easiest example is perhaps the ever-present food; when some of the boys make their way into the secret kitchen and see piles of food, they understandably gape in astonishment, but the narrator says that they've never tasted good food before. Boys keep showing up at the Sanctuary until age ten, and in any setting outside of a prison camp, at some point someone will find or beg or steal some decent food. Similarly, the boys have apparently never seen a woman and don't know what breasts are when they see them, which makes no sense if they were raised anywhere but an all-male camp. If they were kidnapped or rescued from a normal life, they would remember their mothers or sisters. This and the food issues create a mess of exaggeration that could have been addressed easily: either the reality of the food and women dwarfs their memories, or they were actually raised from birth in an anti-pleasure camp. As it is, Hoffman is taking a good concept and trying to hype it harder, which only adds melodrama.

This over-dramatic posturing really isn't helped by the narrative voice, which switches tense and tone with tiring frequency. Within the first few pages it's flipped from a cynical present-tense "listen here" tone to a flat past-tense third-person omniscient style, and the transition just....isn't there. The third-person and more distant style works better with the style of the story, so the occasional "but you must remember" or "who could capture what they felt?" stands out as even more jarring. That sort of around-the-fire tone directly addresses the reader, and it tends to work best if it's so consistent that you barely notice it and just feel it as part of overall yarn-spinner tone. It's quite lovely in Kipling's Just So Stories, and Lewis's narrator-professor in The Chronicles of Narnia is the ideal grandfather figure for the style of the story.  In fits and starts throughout a novel that's trying to be this dark and gritty, though, it's like having a small a capella group marred by a single person who insists on singing through his nose.

And now we come to the thorniest issue, because I normally try to avoid saying this. The portrayal of women in this book is one of the most obnoxiously sexist things I've encountered lately. There was some potential for gender relations in the Materazzi culture to be fascinating, since men have to court women by abasing themselves, and women have to be cruel and distant in public even if they feel otherwise. Unfortunately, we don't actually see much of that since most of the Materazzi men are either unmarried or estranged from their wives. The characters themselves...where to start? Reba, the girl who is rescued from the monastery, is plump, good-hearted, and brilliant at makeup; she moons after Cale the entire time. Jane Weld, the girl to whom Reba is briefly a maid, dismisses Reba in a shrieking tantrum because all of Jane's suitors are sticking around to talk to the plump and friendly maid; apparently all Materazzi women have "boyish figures," since genetic variation clearly doesn't exist. Jennifer Plunkett, an ice-cold assassin assigned to spy on Cale, falls in love with him and escapes from her fellow assassin by virtue of "her dreadful love" rather than her actual skills, only to run straight at Cale and do nothing but scream his name until she gets shot in the back.

Last, but certainly not least, is Arbell Materazzi, called Swan-Neck. She is the most beautiful and high-ranking woman in the land, everyone loves her, and (naturally) she's the only woman Cale wants. The reader first encounters her running down some dark stairs inside the walls of the city; Cale rescues her from falling and thinks she's beautiful, but we never learn what the most-watched women in the city was doing in that sort of furtive venture. Later she sees Cale beat up someone with whom she'd just been almost flirting, is scared, and leaves after he says that she won't forget him a second time. Later he saves her from kidnapping using his combat skills to kill all the enemies, and she's still scared and doesn't want him around. This is when he persuades her father that he and his friends would be great bodyguards for her and ought to be around her at all hours of the day and night; she's understandably nervous and angry until she sees him with no shirt and is stricken with pity for his scars and seething lust for his body.

Reba has engineered this incident, and while he's out of the room she gives Arbell a lecture about how Cale is heroic and self-sacrificing after his hard life, and thus everyone ought to be nice to him. fine, as far as it goes, but the narrative seems to believe that being rescued by a person means that your role is to adore that person, be sweet against the norms of your culture, and then trip into bed. Arbell finds affection for Cale despite being scared of him, and is incredibly loyal until, near the end, she's presented with the choice of writing a letter to trick Cale into being captured or leaving the people in her city to the mercy of the invaders. Cale is concealed in that meeting, knows exactly why she made her choice, burns her letter of apology unread, and flies into a massive storm of unhappiness about being betrayed by his love. That could have been a daring move to show him as hard-hearted and selfish in this arena, but the narrative throws in a clunky page about her being intimidated and subconsciously looking for a way out of the relationship when nothing in their encounters for the past long while showed any evidence of that.

Entirely leaving aside the question of why the first women they see are naked  in a giant bathtub in the middle of ladies-only, let's not leave that aside, because the boys react to women as sources of wonder and the unnecessary nudity is both bizarre and tacky. Not to put too fine a point on it, but every female character whose perspective we inhabit, except for one who's present for less than ten pages, is in love with Cale, who is abrasive, unsociable, rude, and only interested in the most beautiful of them. When that one has to make a "needs of the many" decision, she is clearly a traitor who broke his heart and not a woman who had to make a hard choice and still cares for him. It would, again, be one thing were this perspective only visible inside Cale's head, but the narrative voice supports this one-sided interpretation in a way that makes it clear that the role of the women, and Arbell in particular, is to love and support Cale. The male characters occupy places all over the moral spectrum, each one with a slightly different relationship to Cale, and are treated as friends or enemies or dangerous opponents: in short, as individual people with different personalities.

Most of the plot holes can be ignored, but some of them detract from the flow of the book. The most obvious problem is that Cale says that he doesn't know anything about Redeemer tactics. Unfortunately, he'd earlier told this exact character that he was trained by the best Redeemers there were in everything from hand-to-hand combat to mass battle strategy. Later in the book, he's talking about Redeemer strategy to this character again, laying out a plan, and the fact that he'd lied is never addressed. It's bizarre, inexplicable, and a lazy hole that could have been fixed by tweaking one or two of those conversations. One other problem (since my second major was in Peace, War, and Defense and this sort of thing annoys me) was the general dismissal of bows and arrows. Tradition or no tradition, the idea that you can kill people from really far away before they can get to you has struck many people as maybe kind of useful. Even if the generals witnessing the demonstration of archery were caught in tradition, was no one else intrigued? This culture has conquered a third of the world, so even if tradition has won out then at some point they would have to deal with arrows and respect them.

When the army runs into Redeemers with bows and arrows (no, I'm not entirely clear about why the Redeemers stopped sticking with their distant holy war) in a battle best termed Agincourt Part Two, their tactics reflect a complete inability to pass orders from a distance. They can't even plan and pass orders so that the armored troops wouldn't run each other down into the mud. Let's be honest: this was reasonable at Agincourt, but the French also didn't have the numbers and territory of the Materazzi, whose domain seems more on the scale of the Roman Empire, if not even larger. Borrowing the layout of a historical battle isn't a bad idea, but the context isn't equivalent enough to make the comparison plausible. No culture with that much of a history of conquest can do so using only the elite who can afford massive armor and years of training; the Romans had legions, not few enough soldiers to be devastated in a single battle, and the Materazzi haven't suffered a defeat in years. It simply doesn't compute across so many dimensions that the world feels fake and poorly conceived. 

For that matter, the way this world is a slapped-together pseudo-Europe but still has to have things like mountains called the Appalachians makes it seem like Hoffman just assembled a loose list of things he thought were cool without thinking about them. Creating a Catholic-esque religion around the Hanged Redeemer, who is basically Jesus with a more gruesome death, and then pointing out that "that man in the belly of the whale" was called Jesus of Nazareth, does nothing to lessen this impression. Neither does the crowd at a gladiatorial combat screaming, I swear I am not making this up, chants about loving Lollards and Huguenots (those are separated by many years and native to different countries? What?) followed by "BOOM LACALACALACA BOOM LACALACALACA TAC TAC TAC." That scene, I think, was when I gave up on trying to understand this worldbuilding.

All in all, the aggravation of trying to get through this book far outweighs the fun and creativity. There's enough promising scene-building to have done a lot with the Redeemers, but the book insists on wallowing in how cool and put-upon Cale is until it's impossible to do anything but root for him to die and put an end to the whining. This is a hopelessly muddled mess for most of the book, and you don't need to bother.

Prospects: The second book of the trilogy, The Last Four Things, came out last August. Presumably there will be a third, but I won't be touching anything else with his name on it without glowing reviews  from people I respect.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. The two settings have very little in common, but the violence of children who are shaped into living for only one purpose definitely resonates in both volumes.
~Look for the same concept present in the first few chapters of this book, but executed by someone more talented and less sexist.

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