Review of Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Tooth and Claw
by Jo Walton
One reason I love the Victorian novel? It’s remarkably self-aware. Victorian authors tend to have an appreciation of irony and can wield characters-as-social-commentary like nobody’s business. Victorian England was a time of immense social and technological change, novelists of that era tended to be of a position and background that gave them something to say and the means to say it. While I’m not here to condemn the novels of any other time period, I will say that over the intervening years, the evolution of novel from a serial and pulp form to a massive, mass-market industry means that the character of the novel has changed. We still get self-aware books, but we also get a lot of incredibly earnest narratives. And that isn’t bad—just different.
Indeed, I love Victorian literature, but even I am not crazy enough to recommend it to everyone. Some people don’t have the energy or inclination to battle with the stilted (from our perspective) language or the historical context. So in that respect, I’m actually really glad I found something like this book: it has so many of the elements I enjoy about Victorian literature, but it’s more readable—and did I mention the dragons?
Tooth and Claw is the Victorian novel you’ve always wanted: that is, a Victorian novel with dragons. “But wait, Ben,” you say, “surely I remember there was a dragon at the end of Bleak House.” No, silly reader of my reviews, that was a carriage. “Oh-hoh! But was there not a dragon in Jude the Obscure?” Sadly not, dear reader: that was a pile of used bricks behind the schoolhouse. Easy mistake to make.
Yes, it is hard to believe, but think about it: dragons are mysteriously absent from Victorian literature. It is almost as if there is a vast conspiracy at work. dramatic music
From the beginning to the end, this is a fantastically plotted, well-realized story. The dragon society has all these neat little touches. Walton uses sexual dimorphism to highlight the different expectations society places on men and women: men have claws, have to worry about being challenged to fights, have to think about position and rank and money and marrying off their daughters; women have hands, can write, have to worry about blushing (an irreversible physical sign of arousal) before engagement, and tend to eventually die from egg-laying. There are strictures around religion and flight, and even that same Victorian-style hang-up over the proliferation of new technology, like railways. Oh, and there are hats. So many hats and hairpieces: dragon fashion is kind of limited by their size and shape, of course, so hats are status symbols.
In this world, then, Walton introduces us to a few related families of varying social status. After the death of the Agnornin patriarch, his children have to make their way into the world. Lawsuits, proposals, and confessions ensue. Along the way, Walton’s nameless narrator shows a keen sense of humour appropriate for the Victorian tone of the piece:
It has been baldly stated in this narrative that Penn and Sher were friends at school and later at the Circle, and being gentle readers and not cruel and hungry readers who would visit a publisher’s offices with the intention of rending and eating an author who had displeased them, you have taken this matter on trust.
I love how Walton seamlessly combines the characteristics of her dragon society with the attitudes and tones of a Victorian author exhorting her readers not to be too cruel.
Reading this as a Victorian novel of comedic mishaps and misfortune, then, you get to enjoy the characters. Some are well-meaning but naive, like Avan; others are scheming, moustache-twirling, fire-breathing villains and scoundrels, like Daverak. The female dragons are well-realized and diverse, with each responding to romantic attractions in different ways and each pursuing different political/social agendas. Through this cast, Walton traces the ways in which people conform to and conflict with society’s expectations. And there are dinner parties!
Tooth and Claw is also a transcendent work of fantasy fiction. There is a lot of fantasy out there with dragons. Like, a lot. Some of it is really quite good. Nevertheless, as much as I love high fantasy (and really need to read some more of it soon), I feel like a lot of high fantasy with dragons tends to tread similar ground. Walton really breaks the mould here, demonstrating that it’s possible to play with and stretch the fantasy genre, and the idea of high fantasy creatures like dragons, to ever more malleable extents. She certainly isn’t the first or only author to do this, but this book is a short, sweet, standalone example. Indeed, I particularly appreciate that this is not part of a series.
The ending is exciting, and while a bit simplistic, still very exhilarating. All I can say is that if you enjoy the story as it develops and get into the mood of following these characters through their little drama, you will find a good payoff at the end. Tooth and Claw is just a pleasant, almost picturesque read. You know, if it weren’t for all the blood and guts and flesh the dragons keep eating.