Book Review: The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman
The first thing I should say about this book is that I picked it up in a Roman hostel for free, so I wasn't expecting much. The second thing is that I picked it up because it's about a boy raised by a hooded order of assassins to be a semi-psychotic killing machine. Shades of Assassin's Creed, right?
Well, maybe. The Left Hand of God's protagonist is Cale, a socially awkward psychopath who was raised by an equally psychopathic order of evil monks. Cale's upbringing causes him to respond in completely over the top ways to almost every threat, which causes a lot of problems for his friends later in the book (one thing I really enjoyed) but it makes him a rather unlikeable protagonist. On one hand, Cale's matter-of-fact attitude to extreme violence is a refreshing change after the sort of hero who tosses off a one-liner as he cheerfully slaughters crowds of mooks without a thought, but it does make him a rather uncomfortable person to spend time with. He's also extremely good at said violence, but that's not exactly unusual for a fantasy assassin protagonist who's been raised in secret by monks.
However, later in the book we find that Cale's superhuman fighting abilities stem from a head injury which has given him the miraculous ability to read his opponent's body language and react to moves before they happen. It was at this point, Dear Reader, that I started head-desking. Okay, head trauma makes more sense than many superhero origin stories, but brain damage as a superpower just gets on my tits. I don't know if Hoffman based the character's situation on any similar real-life incidents, but in the end I just didn't care that much about the book to go and check. Hoffman does then have the main character's mentor trying and failing to replicate the effects with a series of boys tied to a table and a variety of small hammers, which I enjoyed immensely, and later a captured mook dies of the head wound that knocked him unconscious, but it still doesn't go far enough to dilute the effect of concussion wound superpowers.
Like a lot of recent fantasy, this book tries just a little too hard to be gritty. There's a lot of Renaissance-style blood and gore, but everyone else has a very twentieth century viewpoint about it. This pissed me off in part because I've just finished reading the Renaissance autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith, gunner and all-round master of bullshit. Throughout his autobiography Cellini spends far more time describing his latest masterwork than on stabbing a man to death in the street or, for that matter, his entire family dying of plague. Now Cellini is a textbook example of a real-life Unreliable Narrator, but the fact that he glosses over so much violence yet describes each commission in detail then clearly expects you to be impressed says something about the relative frequency of nasty deaths in the Renaissance compared to wonderful works of gold and jewels.
At least, I assume The Left Hand of God is set in a Renaissance-style society. There are longbows and crossbows as well as swords, and people pile into Colosseum-style amphitheatres to watch a duel to the death, but a single chapter refers to Roman theatre, London street gangs, bowler hats and smoking, all mashed together in a way I suspect that the author just added whatever he thought sounded cool. A lot of fantasy societies mix and match their periods, but there are a lot of things there that just don't gel for me.
The other thing that pissed me off about Left Hand is the comparative lack of women's roles. You could argue that this was appropriate to the period if the book had a period to start with. There are no kick-arse women at all. In fact, the whole book fails the Bechdel Test because at the end of the first book none of the women has done anything other than think about how to serve men, think about men, talk about men or have sex with men. The two main female characters are a beautiful ice queen who is first frightened by and then sleeps with the main character, and a buxom serving girl who's rescued from the evil monks by the protagonist. Personally I'd have liked the book far better if the traveller and mercenary IdrisPukke had been a man and also had a less stupid name, but you can't have everything in life.
Book Review: Infidel and God's War, by Kameron Hurley.
While we're on the subject of women, may I introduce my second book review; Infidel and God's War by Kameron Hurley; two books from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.
Like The Left Hand of God, this series aims for a raw and gritty feel. Unlike Left Hand, the Bel Dame Apocrypha hits its target with flying colours. And, also unlike Left Hand, the Bel Dame world seems real. It's a post terra-forming futuristic gore-fest where nobody much expects to live beyond thirty and having skin cancers cut out is routine. In other words, not somewhere you'd like to spend some time. Hurley goes into more depth on her blog, which I would highly recommend for anyone interested in non-western and feminist SF. The world-building is insanely detailed, but what really stands out is the magic system. The technology of the Bel Dame world is powered by insects, and the magicians are the only people who can control them. This leads to some interesting set-pieces. There's a scene in the second book where one of the magicians is carried away from a ruined church by a pair of giant insects and that's worth a few quid any day. Also, there are shape shifters.
Now if Left Hand's religion is a sort of bastardised Christianity, Hurley's characters practise a religion that's pretty clearly a kind of broken-down Islam. Although it's nice to see a world without the ever present Crystal Dragon Jesus, Hurley's caught some flak for having super-violent black and Islamic protagonists. However, this is a world where everyone is violent. The cover art doesn't exactly help with the perception of the book. In a world where most women are terrifying battle-scarred matrons, it's interesting that the figures that actually make it onto the cover of the first book in the series are a tiny gun-wielding woman wearing dog tags and a big scary black man in a hood. Now Nyx, the main character, is a downright daunting hard-ass (Hurley refs Lena Heady in Judge Dredd on her blog as a similar character) but Rhys, Nyx's companion and the aforementioned scary black man is by far the nicest and most moral guy in the series and in addition is mentioned throughout the first book as being outstandingly pretty. This is probably the main reason Nyx keeps him around in the first place. Needless to say, this didn't make it onto the cover. This saddens me. The world needs more pretty male cover art-if nothing else, it'll stop Jim Hines and John Scalzi from attempting shit like this.
Like The Left Hand of God, the Bel Dame series suffers a little for having a rather psychopathic heroine. Hurley really forces you to smell the blood. There's body horror and gore aplenty, but the world is such a crapsack it somehow seems more believable that Hoffman's world. Nyx is a bounty hunter and assassin who likes to think she's better than everyone else at what she does, when in fact she's just crazier. Like James Bond, her superpower is simple refusing to die. Otherwise, she's pretty broken. Now competence is sexy and all, but it's nice to have a main character who doesn't do everything right the first time. Nyx fucks up a lot, and since she's playing for high stakes the consequences of her errors are worse every single time.
Like I said, body horror.
Needless to say, all books in the series pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Now I've read somewhere that female warrior societies don't work in real life because you're killing the only people who can produce more warriors. Hurley hand-waves this with a good old dose of sci-fi-multiple births, and a society where men are sent off to the front at sixteen and the few who return are often horrifically scarred by their experiences. There are a lot of bi and lesbian relationships, although the only gay guy dies in the first book, something which Hurley has addressed on her blog but which is a bit of a letdown.
I do have a few other nitpicks. My first is Rhys's choice of name in a world where no other languages are even vaguely Celtic. It's a small complaint and not his real name anyway, but 'Rhys' is so damn Welsh that it ended up pissing me off a bit. The second is that, being a crapsack world, even the more sympathetic characters like Rhys and, well, Rhys, cheerfully sell their side out to get what they want. It's less of a black-and-white morality and more of a black-and-extremely-dark-shades-of-grey one. You're only rooting for Nyx and her team because they're the protagonists and you get the feeling that the same story told from the villain's point of view would reveal her team to be just as brutal and not nearly as well justified as they pretend. It's not quite All Characters Are Bastards, but it's close. The third is that Raine, the first book's antagonist, never feels especially well fleshed out, and he has the same name as one of the characters from Final Fantasy Eight which I found a bit distracting. But when two out of three of my complaints are related to the names of the characters, you know the book can't be that bad.
So The Bel Dame series gets three and a half out of five, and The Left Hand of Darkness gets two, because at the end of the day reading God's War and Infidel made me want to know more about the world and its author. After reading The Left Hand of Darkness I really didn't care.