Let’s start with getting the soundbite out of the way. Mark Richardson’s Hunt For The Troll is, for me, the most compelling story narrated by a character whose name remains unknown throughout the book since Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca way back in 1938. Most authors wouldn’t get away with such a concept nowadays for fear of being accused of either being weird or offering style over substance. Hunt For The Troll is indeed a very weird book, and stylish as all hell, but there is quite a but of substance here. You could, if you so wish, compare this book to Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero in that much of what takes place in the book is surreal and yet instantly recognisable. It’s a page-turner, but not as you know it.
A novel that mixes genres as adeptly as one of the characters, Priya, mixes cocktails, Hunt For The Troll is a heady concoction of urban fantasy, cyberpunk, industrial espionage, and a missing person’s case. Our unnamed narrator has lived a charmed and affluent lifestyle since he discovered at a very early age that he had a gift for writing code. Already on his way to become one of the youngest Grandmasters in chess, he dispenses with the board and focuses instead on gaming. A close friend, known only as The Captain, convinces him that two minds are better than one and so they find investors for a start-up of their own. A few years later they sell out and move on with their lives, with our narrator enjoying a life of luxury and solitude in Rome.
The story starts proper when The Captain emails the narrator with a proposition: he wants the two of them to get the band back together as he has a great idea for another start-up. The narrator boards a flight back immediately, but he finds The Captain is nowhere to be found. Seeing that he’s back hone in San Francisco, he’s offered a job for an online gaming company Centre Terrain, where he’s implanted with a neural processor which allows him to enter the game as an avatar, Roma, and fix any code in the game that needs fixing. He also has a little fun while he’s there, breaking one or two company rules along the way. He begins a relationship with one of his colleagues, Nika. At the same time, the narrator’s been having some strange dreams involving binary numbers and a being called the Troll, who tells him they’re about to change the world.
The narrator draws the attention of billionaire Larry Gosling, an investor of Centre Terrain, and he’s very interested in what our young talented hero has to offer. Offering tidbits into the Troll’s history, Gosling suggests that the man is interested in taking humanity to the next level: in others words, transhumanism. It’s an intriguing concept that doesn’t quite bear the fruit that it should by the end, but the journey nevertheless is peppered with offbeat characters like Whitfield, a guy that the narrator is close to (they smoke a lot of weed and play copious amounts of chess), and the two main female leads, Nika and Priya. Even if you haven’t the first clue about quantum computing and binary numbers, you won’t feel lost among these pages. There’s plenty of expositional dialogue to help you along the way.
Mark Richardson’s playful style is addictive and surprising. I whizzed through the chapters and found myself caught up in sheer dreaminess of the story. One thing I will say, though: the book was first published in 2015, and now six years later, I think it’s time Richardson came back and let us know what happened next. Beware: there be cliffhangers.