Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Published: Tor, 2003
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court 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.

Here is what sounds for all the world like an enjoyable Victorian novel, perhaps by Anthony Trollope…except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here are politics and train stations, churchmen and family retainers, courtship, and country houses…in 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.”

This is the second novel of Walton’s that I’ve read, the first being her entertaining alternate history/murder mystery novel Farthing.  Tooth and Claw is written in a very different style than Farthing, but it is an equally smooth and entertaining read.  Tooth and Claw was the November selection for last year’s Women in Fantasy Book Club, and with this review, I’ve completed the year of novels!

My Thoughts:

Tooth and Claw has been described as being similar to Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.  I’m not really a Victorian romance aficionado, so I have no experience with Trollope’s work.  However, I’ve also heard the novel referred to as “Pride and Prejudice and Dragons”.  I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and I can say that it did feel similar in style to Jane Austen.  Though Tooth and Claw follows the conventions of 19th century romance novels, it is not a retelling of any particular story. This is not merely a gimmicky dragon-insertion into a Victorian novel, but rather a well-constructed tale with inherent absurd humor that adds rather than subtracts from the story.

Referring to Trollope’s novels, Walton states in a foreword, "People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology." For instance, maiden dragons’ lovely golden scales blush irreversibly pink when they are sexually awakened by close proximity to a male dragon.  Thus the ‘corruption’ of a young lady’s innocence actually has public, physical meaning.  

All in all, I was highly impressed by how well Walton’s idea of dragon physiology fit with 19th century society, all while somehow maintaining the fundamental qualities of dragon nature.   High society has kind of a veneer of civility over an undercurrent of ambition, and I think the use of dragons as characters highlights these thinly masked predatorial tendencies. In this society, for example, dragons gain rank and respect through growing physically larger, which only happens if they consume weaker dragons. This essential violence is neatly wrapped up in civilized rules that govern who is to be eaten and who is allowed to do the eating.  I would never have imagined that dragon nature could mesh so naturally with Victorian society.

Tooth and Claw features a large cast, and the characters are basically the types you might see in a 19th century romance. There were pious and impious parsons, low-dowry ladies searching desperately for husbands, an up-and-coming young man out to avenge the wrongs committed against his family, a wayward, good-natured, young nobleman, a ‘ruined’ woman with a mysterious past, and more.  The characters change very little, and that in predictable ways, but that doesn’t stop them from being absolutely charming.  I was surprised by how easy it was to get caught up in each of their hopes and fears, and how quickly I found myself rooting for or against various dragons.  Walton took characters that could have been boring clichés, and made them interesting and endearing.

While this kind of story is usually ultimately predictable, there were pleasant surprises along the way.  The novel mostly followed the stories of Selendra and Haner (the two lady dragons with a dowry problems) and their brother Avan (who takes a powerful nobleman to court over his inheritance).  These three stories eventually came together delightfully well, fitting together like puzzle pieces.  This is the kind of novel where, even if you can see the resolution coming a mile away, the journey is still a pleasure.  

My Rating: 4/5

Tooth and Claw is a charming, funny, and all-around pleasant story.  In style and content, it definitely follows in the footsteps of 19th century novels.  Tooth and Claw works within the conventions of Victorian fiction to tell a well-constructed, social story of a high society peopled by dragons.  The large cast was full of engaging characters that were easy to either love or hate. I think this is a story that could have come over feeling very gimmicky and forced, but I was impressed by how the dragon society seem to naturally fit both dragon nature and the conventions of Victorian fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I look forward to reading much more of Walton’s work in the future!


  1. I want to read Tooth and Claw mostly because the mere concept of a Victorian style novel with dragons is just so strange that it must be... interesting (at the very least). The fact that many reviews (including your wonderfully thorough and enticing take) ultimately come out in favor of the book make me even more inclined. I am quite looking forward to it.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I wasn't sure what to expect from the combination at first-- I was kind of afraid the novel would end up overemphasizing the quirkiness of it all. I thought it was pretty funny, but it was also a really great story. I hope you end up liking it as much as I did!