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The Prodigal Troll
Charles Coleman Finlay
Pyr, 374 pages

The Prodigal Troll
Charles Coleman Finlay
Charles Coleman Finlay's first short story, "Footnotes," appeared in the August 2001 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he has since become a frequent contributor. His stories have been reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction, The Year's Best Fantasy, and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. His first collection, Wild Things, is due from Subterranean Press this coming October. In 2003, he was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Sidewise, and John W. Campbell Awards. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Charles Coleman Finlay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Charles Coleman Finlay Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In a border province of a far-flung Empire, the local noble families, consolidating land and titles through judicious marriages and betrothals, begin to amass an uncomfortable amount of power. Accordingly, the Empress sends her armies to take that power back. His castle under siege, Lord Gruethrist charges a nursemaid and a knight to bear the infant heir, Claye, to safety. But their desperate flight ends in tragedy, and baby Claye is left alone. He's found by a mother troll, grieving for her own dead child; in spite of the disapproval of her fellows, she adopts him as her own.

Derisively called Maggot because of his smooth white skin, the boy grows up among beings who regard him as little better than an animal, relying on his cleverness and ingenuity to survive in an environment to which trolls are perfectly adapted, but which for humans is harsh and full of danger. Though he has never known any other kind of life, Maggot understands that he can never truly be part of the trolls' world; if he is ever to find acceptance, not to mention a mate, he must seek out his own kind, and try to find a place among them. The quest that follows leads him into love and suffering -- and ultimately, in discovery of his true identity, to a moment of fateful choice.

Don't be fooled by the similarities to Tarzan of the Apes. The Prodigal Troll is certainly a hommage to that classic adventure tale, with many echoes of Burroughs in Maggot's rescue and upbringing, and in the primate-like behavior of the trolls (not that Burroughs would win any prizes for accuracy in his depiction of the great apes). But it's also a carefully wrought and original novel that turns a thoughtful eye on just what it means to be human, in part by illuminating what it means to be not-human. Trolls are not without their flaws (one of which is an inability to plan ahead), but their straightforward and egalitarian ways stand in sharp contrast to the devious, hierarchical human cultures Maggot encounters once he sets out on his quest. His travels bring him face to face with a wide range of human behavior -- the cruelty and futility of war, the labyrinthine machinations of politics, the inflexible tyranny of class and gender roles; he learns that humans can be courageous and loving and loyal, but also cowardly, deceitful, and treacherous. In these experiences, he's twice an outsider -- for not only is he unfamiliar with the world he enters, he really is, as the title suggests, a troll at heart, and sees everything from a troll's perspective. This double distancing allows the author to alienize not just the landscapes and societies Maggot explores, but the basic qualities of human nature, and thus to cast them into sharper relief.

Charles Coleman Finlay's lucid prose is a pleasure to read; he's one of those writers who is able to insert quite a lot of humor into what's basically a rather dark narrative without ever seeming crass or forced. He's not afraid to make a fool of his hero, either; Maggot's largely unsuccessful efforts to adapt troll behavior to human situations are often very funny. Characterization is skillful, with even minor characters sharply drawn. And the world building is a standout. There's a primeval feel to the setting, with its sabretooths and dyrewolves and mammuts and much stranger creatures, like the glowing "demons" that inhabit the waterways, and of course the trolls. The various human societies are equally fascinating, from the repressive matriarchal Empire with its complicated customs and jealous gods and ambiguous magics, to the American Indian-style culture of the indigenous peoples who are slowly being annihilated by the Empire's expansion (just as the ancient race of trolls is slowly being annihilated by the upstart human race). Finlay presents all of this not through the lavish layering of detail that's so familiar in fantasy, but sparingly, allowing his world to reveal itself piecemeal through the experience and interactions of the characters -- and unapologetically leaving much unexplained.

The book brings resolution to Maggot's quest, but many questions are left open by the rather abrupt ending, and this, together with some interesting hints about the trolls' relationship to certain human legends, suggests the possibility of at least one sequel. If it's as entertaining and thought-provoking as this excellent debut, it should be something to look forward to.

Copyright © 2005 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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