Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Jo Walton burst onto the fantasy scene with The King’s Peace, acclaimed by writers as diverse as Poul Anderson, Robin Hobb, and Ken MacLeod. In 2002, she was voted the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Now Walton returns with a very different kind of fantasy story: the tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, of a son who goes to law for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father's deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.

Except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here is a world of politics and train stations, of churchmen and family retainers, of courtship and country which, on the death of an elder, family members gather to eat the body of the deceased. In which society’s high-and-mighty members avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing stronger thereby.

You have never read a novel like Tooth and Claw.

When we read novels that are set in Victorian, or indeed Regency, times, one of the main tenets seems to be the social structure and the almost impossibility of climbing from one part of the structure to another. For those who do manage to work hard and become wealthy, they may marry someone of higher status but it will never really be forgotten that they are not really quality. There are strict rules relating to inheritance, the church can and does rule the lives of the people and to live outside any of these strictures will lead to disgrace.

For women, the rules of society are even more restrictive. They are expected to marry (and not necessarily for love) and if they are to remain unmarried then they must be looked after by family. Their reputation must be sacrosanct, and the absolute worst thing that can happen is if they are ruined.

Sounds familiar right? So what happens when an author takes all these standard elements of Victorian society and then turns it on it's head by making all of the characters dragons? You get a fascinating world where it is quite literally a dog eat dog dragon eat dragon world.

The book opens as the family of Bon Agornin gathers at his deathbed. Bon married well, and is now pretty much accepted in society but he is a self made man. His children are with him. Penn, the oldest son, is a parson, Avan lives away and works for the government although at first it is rather vague as to what exactly it is that he does. Also present, Bon's oldest daughter Berend and her aristocratic husband Daverak, and the two unmarried daughters, Selendre and Haner.

By tradition, the body of any dead dragon is divided up and eaten. Aristocrats like Daverak have the right to kill any dragon who is ill, or even baby dragons that are determined to be weaklings as the flesh of dragons helps the stronger dragons grow even stronger, to the point where they may be developed enough to have flames.

Bon believes that he has made his intention clear in relation to his final wishes. Selendre and Haner are to live with the family, one with Penn and then other with Berend. His wealth is to go to the unmarried daughters as Berend and Penn are both well established and Avan is making his own way in the world. In the end though, Daverak helps himself to the prime portions of Bon's body, arguing that wealth relates only to treasure not to the body.

Avan is adamant that his sisters should have had first portions of the body and so decides to take Daverak to law for cheating him and his sisters of their rightful inheritance and so the family is divided, with Penn trying to stay out of the fight as he believes he was compromised by agreeing to hear his father's confession on his deathbed - something frowned upon by the church. With one sister living with Penn and the other with Daverak, the two girls are also divided by their reliance on the family members.

Further adding to the complications, one of the sisters may have been compromised by a dragon that she does not love. The only way to stop this from becoming clear to all of society is through the administration of a dangerous brew, which may or may not stop her from ever exhibiting the signs which show that she was pure before meeting her chosen husband - the changing of her scales to a vibrant pink when she feels the first flush of sexual feelings.

The other major issue relates to dowry - there just isn't enough money to go around to be able to ensure that both daughters can marry well. Will only one of them be able to marry? With both dragons being courted, how will both girls find the happiness they want, especially with the backdrop of the ongoing court case. It is really in the romances of the two sisters that you get the heart of this novel particularly with the introduction of Sher as one of the suitors. His mother, literally a stuffy old dragon, is desperate for her son to settle down with a suitable bride, but her idea of suitable and his are very different. The sister of her parson, daughter of a self made man, is most definitely not suitable.

I also found Avan's secret relationship very interesting - another take on the idea of mistresses. If anything though, I found the conclusion to this aspect of the story a little too convenient.

It is very interesting throughout the books to see the way in which Walton has taken the metaphorical ties that bind people in Victorian literature and makes them physical, like a parson who is bound to his benefactor and the servants who are bound to the families they serve, and actually makes them physical bindings by binding the wings so that they cannot fly, cannot feel the freedom associated with flight. Another example is the physical change which a female dragon faces when sexually awakened. The change can occur very easily, and it is very difficult to hide and can have huge consequences to their chances of marriage if they don't change when they should.

Whilst there have been plenty of comparisons to Austen and the very manners related books set in the Regency, the author is very clear that this book was inspired by Anthony Trollope's Victorian set novels and there is some evidence for this in some of the technological advances of the age, like trains,  and the issues of the age being part of the narrative. I suspect that if I had read any of Anthony Trollope's novels I would find the book even more amusing than I did, but it most certainly wasn't necessary.

It would be remiss of my not to give a shout out to Nymeth! Her review was the one that I read that made me think I really need to read this book! It only took me a year to get around to doing so which is better than my record with some other "I have to read this now" books on my list!

Now I need to read Among Others and see what other books I can easily access in the library by this author! Warm, funny, clever and touching - Jo Walton may just have another fan girl!

Rating 4/5


  1. Hooray! So glad you enjoyed it as much as I did :D

  2. Dragons? Sounds interesting enough for me to pick up and read one of these days. I love Robin Hobb so if this author is anything like her I believe I may enjoy it.

  3. Excellent review! The more I hear about this, the more I want to read it - if only the library hold list were shorter!

  4. I really must read this at some point. Good review!

  5. Oh I do remember Nymeth's review. I never would have thought a book about dragons would interest me but reading such rave reviews definitely makes me want to add it to the list!

  6. How much does the dragon aspect actually influence the story? Based on your review, it sounds like the dragon aspect is a twist on a familiar Victorian-esque family drama, allowing different internal dramas by placing the story in the context of a "dragon culture". It sounds quite interesting (and I've heard wonderful things about Walton as an author), and I'm intrigued by your impression that it's better to read Trollope before reading Tooth and Claw. Seems like one to look into further...

  7. Dragons huh? My interest is piqued and the Victorian dragon society definitely sounds like fun :)
    Thanks Marg!

  8. Oh wow, this sounds so very interesting and compelling! I can't imagine what Victorian dragon society is like, but you have made great inroads to my understanding of it with this post. This book is going on my wish list right away. It sounds fantastic!

  9. Zibilee, Iliana and Jenny Girl, it was a lot of fun.

    Biblibio, basically you have it right!

    Kailana, you really should. You read and liked Among Others didn't you?

    Captive Reader, put it on your list!

    Staci, I have read a few dragon books, most notably Naomi Novik's books which were great.

    Nymeth...I did!