Charles Coleman Finlay’s The Prodigal Troll is another title out of that box ‘o books that I got from World Fantasy Con. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover but damn, did Pyr ever do a terrible job on this one. I never would’ve picked this up off a bookstore shelf.
Not that it would’ve been a huge loss. This is Finlay’s first novel and though he writes very nicely, the story took an awfully long time to grab me. Ever since Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf, tales of humans being raised by beasts have been a part of folklore and this is the trope that Finlay has set out to explore once again. OK, technically the human in this story is raised by trolls and not beasts, but the trolls act like apes who have language and can’t be exposed to sunlight. Our hero Mowgli…I mean, Maggot, grows strong and clever because he has to fight for acceptance among the clan that he is a member of. Had the trolls been apes, the story wouldn’t have had to change much at all.
Once he leaves the world of trolls he falls in with a tribe that takes its culture from a mixture of Native Americans and one of the more primitive tribes of the British Islands. Picts, perhaps? I’m no historian. The names are very olde English but some of the dancing and pipe smoking behaviors feel Native American. In either event, the culture of these people feels recycled. These tribes are pitted against a matriarchal version of a typical pseudo-medieval culture lifted out of fantasy. Actually, this culture has some interesting facets. For instance, eunuchs are treated as women legally, which means they can own property. This leads fairly powerful or well-familied men to become eunuchs.
The sad part is we just get glimpses of this, the most interesting culture in the book. Presumably Finlay is planning Troll to be the first of a series in this world and is laying the bedrock for later tales. In fact, we get glimpses of a lot of interesting ideas. The Knights are driving out the Peasants who are driving out the Trolls. There are ‘demons’ in the river that play a much too minor role in the story, and we meet a wizard or two who are very interesting but don’t get much ‘air time.’
But the greatest insult, and I really felt betrayed by this, is that the first 100 pages or so tell a totally different story with different characters. Characters that I came to like, with their own fears and desires and struggles. In many ways this was my favorite part of the book. Then *poof* they’re gone from the pages, never to be seen or heard from again!! They end up just being the device that Finlay uses to get the human child into the hands of the trolls, but he took much too much time with this and asked us to invest ourselves in these characters…only to toss them aside.
It really soured me on the whole story, and I think changed the way I read it. Almost as if I was looking for things to gripe about after that.
Now all that said, should Mr. Finlay write another novel set in this world, I wouldn’t be opposed to reading it, because by the end of this one he had hooked me. Mostly this was due to his word-craft. I really did enjoy the way he wrote. This is a first novel and I’m sure his next will be even better. Thumbs up or down on this one? I think my suggestion would be to wait and see what else comes out in this world. If Finlay doesn’t revisit it, then The Prodigal Troll will end up feeling like a tease.