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A world with a death-crazed Church

29 November 2013

Malcolm Doney reads a gruesome fantasy


The Beating of his Wings
Paul Hoffman
Michael Joseph £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT205 )

IMAGINE a world that is part medieval and part 19th-century, but contains flashes of anachronistic modernity, where the Church's army is intent on a war of attrition against the earth, so that God can start again. This is the fantasy universe created by Paul Hoffman in The Beating of his Wings, the concluding novel that follows The Left Hand of God and The Last Four Things in his trilogy.

It is like looking at our own global history of intrigue and random incident in a distorting mirror. Leeds and the Mississippi are geographically close to one another, and, somewhere in the dark past, Alois Hutter has once established a Fifth Reich; but an assassination attempt on Franz Ferdinand has failed.

The narrative revolves around Thomas Cale, who is 14 years of age when the trilogy begins. As an infant, he had been taken into "the Sanctuary", an impregnable rock fortress, by the Redeemers, the military arm of a religion dedicated to the worship of "the hanged Redeemer". Here, Cale has been trained to defend himself, to kill mercilessly, with immense expertise, and, furthermore, to lead and defeat armies with ruthless cunning.

Although he does not know it, his mentor, Bosco, soon to be pope, believes that Cale is the left hand of God, destined to serve God's purposes by wiping out mankind. Cale has other ideas, and escapes the Sanctuary with a handful of similarly lethal teenagers. Resembling Steerpike, of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, he is a damaged youth. A renegade nun tells him: "The Redeemers got you and murdered your soul."

Hoffman is clearly working out some of his own revenge in this series, having been educated at what he calls one of "God's concentration camps", a Roman Catholic boarding school in Cowley, which gave him inspiration for the underworld he has spawned. The Church here believes in an Old Testament God who demands absolute fealty and total annihilation.

The trilogy charts Cale's escape, the fatal calamities that dog him, and, ultimately, the circumstance by which - at 16 years old, almost fatally weakened by a mysterious illness - he finds himself facing his nemesis on the battlefield. Cast as a reluctant agent of history, he is the only one who can save the world.

The narrative creaks at times, and loses its way towards the end, but it has, none the less, a feral, gruesome momentum, and is darkly funny and endlessly fascinating.

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