Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
There’s nothing new under the sun, a fact I feel the universe has confirmed ever since I watched a girl pester a handful of authors at a Q & A about a book she was pondering writing until she finally asked, “What if you’re scared someone else will write it first?” If you accept that fact, I think, any creative input is going to be better; thinking about the end product, especially in terms of capital gain and rewards, will only trip you up, in my opinion. Originality in fiction comes from the new combinations we can create from the unchanging fundamentals. Speaking thus, Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw is wildly original, populating a nicely slim Victorian novel a la Anthony Trollope with fire-breathing, flying, ritualistic cannibal dragons.
Tooth and Claw starts off with a death. The Dignified Bon Agornin dies, leaving behind five children–a parson, Penn, an up and coming city gentleman, Avan, two unmarried daughters, Selendra and Haner, and his lone married daughter, Berend, who is wed to the Illustrious Daverak. Daverak cheats the Agornins out of their proper inheritance–the rights to eat the remains of their father in order to grow larger and gain more status and success. As Avan seeks to redress this wrong, Selendra and Haner separate for the first time in their lives and seek husbands.
In her Dedication, Thanks, and Notes, Walton says she wrote Tooth and Claw to satisfy an intellectual exercise. What “if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology”? To this end, Walton has given dragons two traits they don’t usually have. If a female dragon is crowded by an amorous male dragon, she will turn pink. Usually, this is a circumstance reserved for accepted wedding proposals, but there are males with little to no scruples in the world. This allows for the Victorian anxiety over purity and virginity to be highly visible. The other is the right of the high class to eat the weak dragonets of their lower class workers, something Daverak does constantly, hence his enormous size. That is not as developed as the blushing of female dragons, but it’s quite interesting–oppression occasionally means actually eating the oppressed. The world is very Victorian, down to parsonages, elegant ladies, balls to catch a husband at, proper haberdashery, and trains, since dragonets and the serving class cannot fly. I also liked the fact that female dragons lack claws to explain some of the extremely patronizing views of some of the male dragons. What Walton does best is making you forget you’re reading about Victorian dragons with chameleon eyes, and then adding just a little detail here and there to remind you of their immense size. There’s hints at a larger world, especially towards the end, when a human ambassador comes calling, but you never feel as though Walton is straying from the plot to show you the width and breadth of the world of Tooth and Claw.
I’ve never read any Anthony Trollope, much to my shame, but the plotting reminded me a great deal of Austen. Female dragons must marry because they lack claws and thus cannot battle to defend themselves or for status, which is like the raised marriage stakes for the Bennet girls in Pride & Prejudice. If you have any Regency or Victorian reader friends who need to be turned to the fantastical, this is the book to do it. But this comparison cuts both ways. While it’s quite compelling as a unique family drama, it’s not exactly a thrilling page turner. It’s downright cozy, as I find most of Austen’s work. Since it’s quite slim and very straight forward, at 253 pages, this is a perfect book to just toss in your bag or purse.
There’s a great focus on the female characters, who protest their situation and do the best they can in a world where their supposed purity is worn on their face. Selendra and Haner take up most of the focus. Selendra is a more passionate dragon who defends her family against people who think they’re too nouveau riche for high society, while Haner is a quiet, dreamier dragon who starts protesting for workers’ rights once she sees how her brother-in-law treats their servants, which I loved, especially how matter-of-fact Haner is about how radical she is. When the plot strays to the city, to focus on Avan’s quest to file a lawsuit against his brother-in-law, we meet his lover, Sebeth, a female dragon who rescued herself from prostitution and whose bright pink skin tells people to look down upon her. I really loved Sebeth’s arc, although how it ends feels very sentimentally Victorian.
I also loved that Tooth and Claw has very subtle humor. Each chapter is separated into titled sections, and when they start tallying the numbers of deathbeds, confessions, and proposals, there’s eventually a chapter with a section titled by the narrator to apologize for forgetting those numbers. When one of the dragonets Selendra is looking after asks if magic is real, she replies with an “of course”, since she lives in a world where feasting on dragonflesh makes you bigger and stronger. It’s sweetly and subtly done, which helps make the more draconic outbursts more effective. The entire novel is very well-executed for a concept that could have been just a gimmick or too out there.
Bottom line: A truly unique piece of work, Tooth and Claw is a Victorian novel about a family being robbed of their inheritance populated solely by dragons. Between the intriguing parallels to Victorian society (making female dragons’ skin reflect their “purity” and the oppression of the lower class) and the subtle humor, this is a downright cozy and Austen-esque (a parallel I make because I haven’t read Trollope) fantasy novel that everyone should read.
I rented this book from the public library.