Members of most societies, especially traditional cultures, do not spend any time thinking about the structures that govern social and interpersonal relationships. The rules of life are accepted without question, in much the way water is taken for granted by fish.
So if a writer wants to examine the levers and pulleys that make a particular society work, a time-honored motif is to create a point-of-view character who is a disinterested outsider, as Jonathan Swift did when he thrust poor old Lemuel Gulliver into one allegorical predicament after another. In the twentieth century, the outsider often became a reasonable facsimile of a noble savage. Aldous Huxley did it with Brave New World, as did Edgar Rice Burroughs with Tarzan of the Apes and Robert A. Heinlein with Stranger in a Strange Land.
Now Charles Coleman Finlay does it with Maggot, the hero of his debut fantasy novel, The Prodigal Troll. Like Lord Greystoke, Maggot is really the noble Lord Claye, son of Lord Gruethrist and Lady Elysse, lost in infancy during a time of war and raised in the mountains by a doting troll mother. Grown to manhood among trolls who practice primitive democracy and respect each other's personal spaces, he then descends into the human world, where land-hungry invaders from a medievalish empire are flooding into lands already occupied by crop-growing peasants who have a touch of the Iroquois Confederacy about them.
As the story unfolds, Maggot learns about war and massacre, friendship and treachery, magic and true love. An innocent at large in complex, matriarchal societies, his perspective is constantly being expanded at the cost of his innocence. But he remains savagely noble beneath the physical and emotional wounds that are the price of experience, and does the right thing when faced with moral choices.
As interesting as the hero's character is Finlay's world-building. The setting is sometime in the Pleistocene, with sabertooth cats (called "dagger tooth lions" in a world without sabers), dire wolves and mammoths. But its human inhabitants use metal and wield quite powerful magic. There are wizards whose songs can inhibit the appetites of reptilian "Old Ones" that haunt the rivers, manifesting as phosphorescent snakes able to mesmerize any human or animal prey unwise enough to make eye contact while in or on the water.
Finlay wisely allows the nature of his world and characters to emerge unobtrusively as the story wears on. There are no large, clunky infodumps explaining the backstory, so that the shape of things becomes clear only gradually, much as the dos and don'ts of the social structures among which Maggot sojourns come into focus as he naively bumps up against them. The incidents are told in a straightforward style, so that moments of gruesome horror, as when Maggot learns what "war" really means, are related in the same understated tone as are comic episodes, such as the scene where Maggot attempts to win the affection of his aristocratic lady love. He offers her an unmistakable physical display of amorousness, as would any good troll, and she responds in the manner of a properly brought up young woman who knows where to place a well-aimed kick.
There are some flaws: the copy editing flags in places, leaving some minor grammatical errors and giving us "horde" where "hoard" is meant, and I'm not quite sure anyone looked up the dictionary definition of "prodigal." Also, the book does not so much end as simply stop, with Maggot and Claye heading back into the wilderness, his love story as unresolved as the politics in which he is obviously destined to become a key player. One detects a whiff of forthcoming sequel, which is fair enough, but the cover ought to mention something about this being the first book of a series.
Finally, as a habitué of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I am pleased to note that the genesis of Finlay's novel was a number of stories first published in that venerable magazine. The grand old pulps can still be the entry points for promising new authors—which Charles Coleman Finlay certainly is.