This impressive debut from Charles Coleman Finlay begins familiarly enough: a castle under siege, a few loyal servants, a child spirited away. It's awhile before events take an interesting turn, but when they do, it's a hard skew into unfamiliar territory. The guardians are killed and the child, Claye, is adopted by a troll whose own child has recently died.
So much you might glean from the back matter of The Prodigal Troll (by which title, by the way, one should not assume that Claye is a profligate sort, although in some ways he is), but once you get to the meat of this novel, it's a satisfying feast indeed. Finlay has carefully worked out every aspect of troll society. Comparisons to Tarzan are appropriate here, as indeed much of the trolls' social structure and means of interaction is clearly modeled on apes. They are not, however, complete imitations: Finlay creates a society by turns crude and surprisingly sophisticated, one that has discovered the benefits of democracy while human beings still labor under tyranny.
These trolls, like most that appear in fantasy novels, are not blessed with an overwhelming intelligence. They're smart enough to know that Claye's not really one of them, though, and in addition to being smaller and weaker than his adopted kin, Claye is forced to fight twice as hard for an acceptance that is never really granted. The trolls also know that they and their way of life is dying out, a casualty of human conflict and human progress.
Meanwhile, tempted by the prospects of companionship and belonging, Claye seeks out human society in the novel's second half. There's a great deal of humor and pratfalling here, particularly as Claye struggles to learn human languages and methods of communication. Finlay creates a wealth of detail concerning troll movement and body language; Claye's instincts, of course, are all out of tune with those of the human society he covets. His loyalties are personal, not political, and when the prodigal at last does return, the results shatter all expectations while exceeding none of them.
Finlay seems to be more at home with his troll societies than with his human ones, and the section of the novel where Claye grows up, comes of age, and comes to understand his fundamental difference from those around him is the most vivid and interesting part of the story. Its pacing is the best, as well; in the rhythm of Finlay's writing, the reader gets a sense of the pace of life of the trolls, developing a perhaps unexpected sympathy with and for them.
Claye's re-entry into human society is bumpy, as one might expect, but it's a bit of a bumpy read as well. Finlay sets himself a thorny problem, and does probably the best thing he could have done: since the Tarzan comparisons were pretty much inevitable anyway, he goes ahead and acknowledges them. In other words, there is a Jane, and she's an interesting secondary character of whom, due to constraints of point of view, we don't see nearly enough.
Claye also spends a great deal of time in the novel's middle and final sections running around with an itinerant group of warriors from a tribal people whose social structure and general behavior resembles that of several Amerindian cultures. Again, Finlay handles this part deftly, even if the comparison remains obvious, and it allows Claye to acquire an outside yet human perspective on the more settled and sophisticated human society from which, unbeknownst to him until almost the final pages, he has been exiled.
However, by the time Claye makes his final choice, the reader may well have already guessed what it will be. What sustains interest until the very end is the understanding that although Claye is largely ignorant of the human cultural and political tides through which he moves, his decision cannot be said to be uninformed: it's just informed by a non-human context. Finlay does not quite advocate a back-to-nature style of existence here, but he does seem to suggest that brutal fairness is morally preferable to sophisticated inequality; a suggestion with which most of his readers will probably agree.
In addition, Claye is an engaging and often entertaining character. Faced with an inability to communicate, he's more likely to charge than retreat, an attribute that earns the reader's sympathy as well as that of many of the people he meets. Finlay has put considerable effort into creating a personality that is not entirely human, but not incomprehensibly non-human either, and for the most part he succeeds. Despite a few issues with pacing, and a few occasions when the real-world models for Finlay's imagined societies show through a little too clearly, The Prodigal Troll is a well-written, engaging, and very promising first novel. Although Finlay's next publication will be a collection of short stories (Wild Things), we may hope that there will be more novels to sink our reading teeth into.
Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.