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Published on July 22nd, 2012 | by DerbyLife


Book Review: Troll or Derby

By Merchant of Vengeance

Troll or Derby, a new adolescent dark fantasy story, seems to imply that someone is going to have to make a choice: you can have a troll, or roller derby, but sadly, not both. But that’s just it: in the style of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, Tash has decided, why not? Why not mash the dark fantasy world with the darling of the pop culture underground and America’s fastest growing sport?

The result is a fun, page-turning read for older teens and adults that combines fantasy and derby as if, all along, they’d been like peanut butter and jelly, though honestly the story is about derby somewhat tangentially.

First, derby: Tash is legit. She played as Tyra Durden for the Derby City Rollergirls, and repped TeamMILF at RollerCon 2008. Her main character, Deb, loves skating more than pretty much anything; at the beginning of the story, too young to join a women’s league, she’s stuck with “just skating,” which she seems to do everywhere, heedless of sidewalk cracks, pavement quality, and wheel wear. Later, in the fairy underground, Deb gets to join an actual team—on the banked track, no less, and spends lots of time training. Brief references to soreness, training, derby wives, skating addiction, and first bouts follow. While Deb does skate in a bout, and it is important, derby has little to do with the climax of the story.

Still, we like a heroine with our obsession, right? Especially if she’s a bad-ass?

Enter trolls. At it turns out, the majority of the people Deb consorts with—good and bad—are magical, or “fae”; fairies, trolls, fortune tellers, you name it. And Deb might not be completely human, either.

The story starts when Deb’s older sister, who has mystically earned Deb’s devotion and love, is kidnapped by a meth dealer. Deb’s mom, a neglectful and nasty alcoholic, not only blames Deb, but disowns her, kicking her out of the trailer park where they live. Deb begins a journey to find and save her sister, which leads her to magicked dumps and warehouses, fairies, trolls, prophecies, and fate.

Along the way she meets Harlow, the other narrator, a genuine, kind troll sworn to be her protector. Harlow’s narrative is gold. It’s funny, sweet, and fast-paced. He serves as our guide through the fantasy world he’s a part of, answering (most) of our questions about the fae, and about his ties to Deb.

The best part of Troll or Derby is neither the element of fantasy or that of derby: it’s the element of the real. Deb, assumed to be a lesbian, embraces, for a time, a sexual relationship with a beautiful but shallow girl, while “married” to Harlow, a boy she genuinely likes and whose friendship she values. She faces questions of loyalty and love, bonds of attraction and bonds of friendship, and muddles her way through those questions just like most teenagers would. She runs away from an alcoholic mother, instead seeking nurture from other adults, the way many teens piece together a sort of “parent pie” made from adults who look after them. Deb’s sister is addicted to drugs; both the “real” world and the “underworld” of magical creatures are edgy, dangerous, filled with drugs, sex, rock and roll, and blood. (Parents, be aware: if your younger child reads this, he or she will be reading about meth and other serious drugs; sex, both hetero and homosexual, rape, violence, and murder, bloody deeds, runaway teens, trailer parks, and violent rock shows. Thus, he or she will want to read it. You have been forewarned.)

In both of these edgy worlds, Deb is a subversive: she has to fight stereotypes, catcalls, difficult home circumstances, unscrupulous persons in power, and one seriously gnarly bad guy. That stuff is pretty real. Throw in a prophecy, a boy/friend hell-bent on protecting her, a true self to discover, and a whole gang of fairies and trolls and vixens and whatnot, and Deb is a new sort of fantasy hero.

So when she morphs into her true self—with unexpected elements that pleasantly don’t fit cultural expectations for “pretty little girls,” and fiery new strength—her subversion to all things “normal” becomes cemented and her power made clear: while the real world problems—and the fantasy world problems—don’t disappear entirely, it’s clear that Deb is capable of facing them, and more importantly, she will do as herself, without apology.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s that Tash tried to do too much: there’s a poorly explained connection between the fae and the Amish; derby is an important part but also rather deemphasized; Deb and Harlow have a complicated past, foreshadowed in the first chapter, not all of which felt clear by the end. But those are easily forgiven in light of the fresh voices of the narrators, the page-turning fun, and a bold heroine who loves derby.

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