‘The Last Four Things’ is the follow up to Paul Hoffman’s well received ‘The Left Hand of God’.
‘The Last Four Things’ is the follow up to Paul Hoffman’s well received ‘The Left Hand of God’. That book introduced us to a world with a parallel history to our own and the character Thomas Cale, a young man who doesn’t look like anything much but is literally the Angel of Death, wreaking God’s wrath on the unfaithful.
You can’t fault Hoffman for his imagination. We’re flung into an alternative Europe in a time period that feels equivalent to our Renaissance. Rival religions rule the world and we follow the action from the viewpoint of the Redeemers who resemble Catholicism with their opulent churches and rituals, Priests and Cardinals and, over all as the embodiment of God on Earth, a Pope. The redeemers worship the teachings of the ‘Hanged Redeemer’ and the title comes from common chant of:
‘Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, the last four things on which we dwell’
The Redeemer faith is riddled with internal intrigues and plots as various factions play off against each other as they compete for power. Cale is a deadly tool in the hands of the duplicitous Cardinal Bosco who is determined to manipulate all around him to his advantage as he tries to manoeuvre his way to the position of Pope. Arrayed against the Redeemers are a range of different nations and faiths all with their strange quirks and customs. Bosco is a monstrous creation, full of clever and cynical cruelty ambition and an object lesson in the corruption of power without conscience. Cale is Bosco’s secret weapon and he sends him out to hone his skills while, like a chess master, he moves all his pieces into place ready to make his move and seize control.
Thomas Cale is a clever invention – the Angel of Death embodied as a teenage boy. He is both stroppy child and destructive force of nature. It is an engaging idea to have the notional ‘hero’ as a petulant young man who looks after his mates and yearns for his lost love but who, when unleashed is also capable of bringing down biblical scale destruction and chaos wherever he goes. Minor characters are also well served. A subplot involving Cale’s missing presumed dead friend Kleist runs parallel to the main story bringing a change of scenery and some very welcome dark humour.
There are some outstanding moments in ‘The Last Four Things’ that provide some frantic page turning fun. An early attempt to recruit an Army of God goes awry when confused orders mean that the recruits are all accidentally executed with mechanical efficiency. The master executioner is splendidly upset by his mistake that he takes as a personal slight against his professionalism. Another excellent sequence sees Cale on the battlefield trying to solve a seemingly impossible military puzzle by learning how to win an engagement from an apparently indefensible position. A horribly detailed piece of experimental surgery has a grim car crash fascination and, later still, a masterfully co-ordinated city wide coup provides an breathtaking set piece.
Hoffman is a very skilful writer, using language with precision and a style which is very engaging. The book is beautifully written, managing to combine a slightly archaic style that matches the religious setting perfectly with a razor sharp black humour that emphasises the ridiculous nature of the fanatics that populate the story. He uses names of existing places and historical figures, or invented ones which are reminiscent of familiar things, quirkily transposed to his world in a way that entertains but also gives a strange surreal quality to the story. Geography is collapsed in a way reminiscent of jumbled dreamscapes. You have Symmonds Yat, Spanish Leeds, Memphis and the Golan heights all existing alongside each other.
So, how good is it overall? Well, actually, sadly, it’s a bit hit and miss. There’s enough brilliant stuff that you want to love it but it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. When it’s good – as in the sections already discussed, it really is fantastic, addictive page turning stuff. Unfortunately it isn’t all like that. There are also long stretches where the plot becomes repetitive and tedious. Some sections really are hard work as you feel that you’re just slogging from one military engagement to another without really understanding how it’s furthering the plot. The novel also doesn’t ever seem to be heading toward any specific climax. Certainly thinks do accelerate toward the end but the finale, when it arrives, is underwhelming and doesn’t really offer very much more than a tantalising bridge to the next instalment.
Ultimately Hoffman is a very good writer and the engaging style and high points definitely make ‘The Four last Things’ worth a look. If you enjoyed the first book you probably won’t be disappointed with this although it probably isn’t the best place to start reading Mr Cale’s adventures. When it’s good it’s very good indeed but the weaker sections are hard work. It may end up being a marmite experience – for every enthusiast there’s bound to be someone else who dislikes it in equal measure but, actually, that’s probably no bad thing. Like it or not it’s certainly good to see something so full of energy and originality in a genre where lazy by numbers production-line carbon copies are ten a penny.
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