The Prodigal Troll
Charles Coleman Finlay
357 pp • ISBN: 978-1-59102-313-5
The Prodigal Troll is a tale of a human child raised by a band of mythological creatures that is both hysterical and moving.
When Lord Gruethrist's castle is laid under siege by an invading baron, he sends a trusted knight and nursemaid off with his infant son. Their escape across a wilderness landscape populated by fantastic creatures and torn by war takes unexpected turns until the baby is finally adopted by a mother troll grieving for her own lost child. Christened "Maggot" by a hostile stepfather, the human boy grows up amid the crude but democratic trolls until he leaves the band to rediscover the world of humankind.
But the world of man is a complex and capricious place. Maggot must master its strange ways if he is to survive... let alone win the heart and hand of the Lady Portia.
Finlay's society of trolls are unlike any you've ever read before, and his matriarchal medieval world, pitted as they are against an analog of Native American tribesmen, provides a rich setting for many poignant social and political insights.
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"Charles Coleman Finlay has been publishing excellent stories ... for the past several years. But even those gems provided scant hints of the casket of treasures that await the reader in this sophisticated and deftly crafted debut novel. Finlay has plainly made a spectacular jump into a new stage of his career, which will hopefully be a long and productive one. ... Finlay's trolls have a culture and mindset all their own, and it's portrayed brilliantly ... a gripping tale."
—Science Fiction Weekly
"Finlay's fantasy debut features a poignant tale of a young man raised by creatures otherwise considered as monsters yet who, in their own way, exhibit a sense of tribal unity and democratic traditions. Excellent world building and a unique and likable hero make this a good selection for fantasy collections."
"Finlay's debut is an endearing and poignant coming-of-age tale that will evoke as many laughs as it does tears. The compelling and complex character of Maggot is enormously sympathetic, especially when he's faced with bloodthirsty and power-hungry humans who lack any sense of ethics. Chock-full of (not so complimentary) insights regarding human nature, The Prodigal Troll is an irresistible fantasy — utterly readable."
"The Prodigal Troll is an anthropological fantasy of quite a high order, and its arguments could readily fuel a trilogy, or more. Maggot is a memorable hero; like a barbarian Candide, he has many lessons yet to administer."
"... up-and-coming author Finlay expands one of his popular stories...into a fresh and affecting first novel with echoes of Tarzan of the Apes and The Jungle Book ... unusually intriguing and satisfying work from a writer on the rise."
"Since his first appearance in our pages, he's become one of our most popular writers."
—Gordon Van Gelder, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
"Charles Finlay writes with commendable clarity and an elegant turn of phrase. He creates a charming and believable troll society, and Maggot/Claye, the innocent abroad, is an interesting and engaging protagonist....an entertaining and well-written book, and Charles Finlay is a writer to watch."
"Humor and serious sequences mix fairly nicely in this one. Finlay doesn't write like a first time novelist."
—Science Fiction Chronicle
"Reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, and somewhat akin to Jack London's Before Adam, Charles Coleman Finlay's The Prodigal Troll looks at humans through the eyes of a youth raised by a band of Trolls but who turns to mankind to find his place in the world. A coming of age tale wrapped in an adventure, with wit and insight Finlay subtly examines foibles of our kind."
—Dennis L. McKiernan, Author of Once Upon a Summer Day
"Finlay's accounts of troll culture are thoughtful, humorous and entertaining."
—Cecilia Dart-Thornton, author of The Bitterbynde Book 1: The Ill-Made Mute and The Crowthistle Chronicles Book 1: The Iron Tree
Q&A with Charles Coleman Finlay
1. The Prodigal Troll owes no small debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes. Is ERB an influence on your writing?
Absolutely, in the way that the first writer you fall in love with as a reader is always an influence on your writing.
I remember very clearly, I was ten years old and bored in the kids section in the basement of the old Carnegie library in the small town where I lived. So I went upstairs to where the adult books filled these old oak shelves that seemed to go all the way up to the ceiling. I stumbled across Tarzan of the Apes and checked it out. I was the perfect age for that book, the age where you spend all summer running around outside and building treehouses and things like that, and it changed my life. I had liked to read before, but after that book, I loved reading. And I ended up reading everything by ERB I could find.
As an adult, there were things about the Tarzan novels in particular that were less satisfying to me. But I thought the richness of the fantasy genre created a perfect place to revisit those themes in the kind of world that would provide other opportunities for adventure and reflect some of the concerns I have for the world my kids are growing up in.
2. Your trolls seem far less magical and much more "biological" than other takes on the monsters. In other words, they are very convincingly realized, so much so that one reviewer (perhaps looking for a science fiction angle in your fantasy) mistakenly assumed they were a tribe of Neanderthals. How did you go about developing a rich troll culture?
I wouldn't want to get rid of the magical element completely, but I did spend time reading up on not only Neanderthals but other large primates, trying to understand large primate behavior. Beyond that, it's just an act of imagination, trying to understand the trolls and their concerns from their perspective, the way you would understand any other character.
Another part of it also reflects my interest in the world we live in. We claim to believe in democracy and equal opportunity, yet our fantasy novels these days are often, if not overwhelmingly, about the nobility. Even when a common person rises up to lead, it's because it turns out that because of a secret birth or divine ordination, that person is really of the nobility too. Why is that? Why are we, as readers, drawn to that? Because, heck, I am too, even though it contradicts other values I believe in.
So I created trolls that would let me explore a fantasy world where there were other options. I think that perhaps the trolls feel convincingly realized because some of their beliefs are closer to our own.
3. There is a lot of humor in The Prodigal Troll, but it's not a humor novel, is it?
No, it's not, but I'm not sure about that distinction anyway. I can't go through a day without humor—can you? I'm sure some people never laugh, but even the most serious people I know have a sense of humor. I have friends who work in the military or in hospitals, for example, who have deadly serious jobs, and they all have a sense of humor. They're able to laugh at the absurd and ironic situations life throws at them.
So I admit that I'm puzzled when I read novels that have no humor in them at all. That kind of world feels incomplete to me. It's like having a rainbow with no blue in it. Or a nature preserve with no plants.
Of course, having said that, I'm now doomed to finish this Q&A without saying one funny thing.
4. You pit your medieval society against an analog of Native American Indians. Why the choice to superimpose two cultures that never clashed in our own world to this degree?
As a writer you have to write the things you're interested in, and I've been interested in medieval cultures and the Native American cultures that were contemporaneous with them for a very long time. My first novel, which I wrote over ten years ago and never sold, was an alternate history about the Viking settlement of North America. I didn't realize until the second draft of The Prodigal Troll that I'd revisited the same cultures in a different setting.
In one way it goes back to being that ten year old kid again. I was reading Tarzan, but I was also running around in the woods with my friends playing knights one day, playing Indians the next. As an adult, and more particularly as a trained historian who's studied the European settlement of North America and its effects on indigenous cultures, I hope I've moved past simple Romanticized notions of either group. But I still find myself fascinated by both the conflict and confluence that happens when vastly different cultures meet.
5. What do you think it is that draws readers to the fantasy genre, and what do you think the place of fantasy is here at the start of the 21st century?
Wow. Could you pick an easier question?
I'm a reader, long before I became a writer, so let me answer that by speaking first about my own experience. I'll be interested in what the people who read this interview have to say for themselves. Maybe some of them will write and tell me after they read the novel.
Most simply, I like fantasy because it can be fun. It's like going on a vacation to a different country. There are sights and sounds and surprises everywhere you turn, and there's a sense of adventure, of something extraordinary. After a day of doing work to pay the bills or finishing a hundred other quotidian chores, it's fun to escape to someplace exciting.
Escapism is usually leveled at reading as a condemnation. But I think the escapism of fantasy can also elevate us and raise our own aspirations. Everything in a fantasy novel takes place on a bigger than life stage, with consequences that can, in many cases, affect the whole world. Inevitably, those concerns reflect and resonate with the issues in our own world, both on a global and personal scale.
So the place of fantasy here at the start of the 21st century is the same place that myth and imaginative stories have always had: they are both an escape from and a doorway back into the concerns of our own lives and the times we live in.
6. Your first professionally published story, "Footnotes," appeared in the August 2001 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and by 2003 you were a finalist for four major awards. Does it feel like you have suddenly burst on the scene, or was there a lot of struggling behind the scenes before your recent wave of successes?
I wrote an essay about this for the afterword of my first short story collection, Wild Things, which will be coming out from Subterranean Press in just a couple months. But the short answer is the old saw that behind every overnight success is ten years worth of hard work.
In 1994, I left graduate school to be a stayhome dad. I thought I'd try writing, which is something I'd always wanted to do, at the same time. Six years and over a million words later I sold my first short story. It took four more years, until the summer of 2004, to sell my first novel. So either the process takes a while or else I'm a very slow learner.
I'm very grateful for the successes so far, and especially for the award nominations. But I try not to pay too much attention to them. The one thing that writing all those years without success taught me is that it has to be worth doing for its own sake. And how lucky am I now? I get to do something I love—tell stories!—and other people seem to enjoy them too. That's the only real measure of success.
7. You've been involved with several writing workshops and courses, including the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror and the prestigious Clarion workshop. How valuable do you think these are in honing your craft?
I'm very honored to be teaching at the Clarion workshop this year, but I never attended it as an aspiring writer. There would have just been no way to leave my kids for six weeks back in those days.
No, I started out writing by myself for years, and I was very suspicious of workshops for a variety of reasons. But I stagnated before I started selling stories. I wasn't getting any better and I couldn't see why. So I joined the Online Writing Workshop (http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com) when it first opened. The group of writers there that first year included Jim Butcher, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Karin Lowachee, and dozens of others you've heard of if you read short fiction. There's nothing like being around writers who are much better than you are to help you get better fast! I learned a lot, especially from trying to give smart reviews of their work. About a year and a half after I joined, I started selling stories. For the past several years, I've also been the workshop admin.
Workshops, whether it's Clarion or something online like OWW, aren't for every writer. In fact, they can be detrimental to some writers. But for me, OWW was essential. Workshopping, being around other talented people, has been the catalyst I needed to push my own work up to the next level.
8. The Prodigal Troll evolved out of a series of stories appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Black Gate. Can you tell us about the initial story's genesis and how it led to this novel? At what point in the process did you know you had a book on your hands?
Actually, it happened the other way. I wrote the novel first, and finished it in time to submit to the Warner Aspect First Novel contest that Karin Lowachee won with Warchild. But the book didn't work the way I wanted it to. I didn't even make the finalists group in the contest.
So I went back to it, and started pulling it apart and rewriting it section by section over a couple of years. At that point, I was thinking I might sell off a few parts of it and then go on to write a different book. I didn't realize I had a novel on my hands until I went back and put the revised sections back together and saw that maybe now the whole thing could work the way I'd always wanted.
I think I needed the time away from it to hone my craft by writing some other short stories. Apparently, I am a very slow learner.
9. Without giving away too much, what can you tell us about the next book in the Troll series?
I haven't finished it yet, so I hesitate to say too much, since there will always be revisions. Maggot makes an important choice at the end of The Prodigal Troll, but he still has a lot to learn about his own identity. So the next book deals with that search, and his chance to correct a mistake he made with Portia. There are also ruined cities, lost trolls, lonely maidens, and giant ground sloths, or at least one of each, in a mountainous region torn by ethnic cleansing. It's kind of like a vacation to another country. If you went during a war. How's that?