Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

 

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

This has got to be the oddest thing I’ve read in a while. Utterly engrossing and absolutely brilliant (definitely a keeper), but … yeah … odd. It’s a story of a world with many of the priorities and interests of Victorian Britain, but in which all players are dragons. Winged, clawed, fire-breathing dragons. Yet it’s partly a comedy of manners (Austen-ish), partly a humanitarian novel (Dickens-ish), and it both echoes and parallels Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which Walton quotes at the beginning of the book and mentions in her ‘Dedication, Thanks, and Notes’.

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It’s not odd while you’re reading it. Walton manages to capture perfectly the everyday details of her dragons’ lives and flawlessly imagines the workings of their world. There’s no slip or falter in the consistency of her vision and while it took me a handful of pages to get a grip on things, once I did I was hooked. I’ve finished this in a matter of days (something extraordinary for me), reading late in bed and at every other opportunity because it was just so much fun. It’s only odd now that I step back from it and realise that I’ve been completely taken up with the romantic lives of a small handful of dragons, without once batting an eyelid.

As the wonderfully arch narrator keeps count, this story comprises eight proposals, seven confessions, three dinner parties and three deathbed scenes, two court hearings and one ball. In terms of action there are two brief fights and a hunt for a lost dragonette in a mountain cavern. On top of all this there’s a fascinating look at a society experiencing change as industrialisation takes hold (trains are in evidence and there is talk of factory workers and warehouses in the city of Irieth), the practice of keeping servants and the conditions in which they are kept is beginning to be questioned, and beliefs both about class and religion are challenged. As children of a self-made man … ahem … dragon, Dignified Bon Agornin’s children represent the new order and most of the drama of the book comes from their finding places for themselves in an old and well-established society. The worst of tradition is represented by the rich, elderly Exalt Benandi’s snobbery and the greedy self-importance of the Illustrious Daverak, and is gently poked fun at. Well, maybe a bit less gently in Daverak’s case because he’s such an arse.

Anyway, let’s talk about what I really loved about this book. So, yes, ha ha, it’s a book about dragons living like Victorian ladies and gentlemen – what larks! But this is just so well done. All the manners and social rules just serve to highlight the savagery of other dragonish practices, such as that of eating the dead, the weak and the elderly, or binding the wings of servants and the clergy so that flight is impossible for them. Other rules make more sense in the dragon world than they’ve ever done in the human one, for example, maiden females cannot go around unaccompanied with males because if aroused to sexual response they literally and irreversibly blush pink, and to be pink without being betrothed is to be cast out, (and/or eaten, I guess). At the same time, Walton doesn’t have her dragons dining with knives, forks and spoons, or dabbing at their mouths with serviettes. They dine in the dining room, sure, but it’s a bloody carnivorous affair after which they have to be sponged clean by servants. They sleep in caverns on beds of rock or gold (gold being more comfortable naturally), and they have kitchens and speaking rooms. They don’t wear clothes, nor jewellery particularly, but they do … wait for it … they do wear hats. This had me in stitches. Walton doesn’t reveal it straight away (it’s about a hundred pages in that this discovery is made) perhaps to establish her dragonish society firmly in our minds first, but the same attention is lavished upon hats that plenty of Regency novels slather over dresses. It’s fabulous! I mean, dragons in hats? I just didn’t see it coming, at all. *massive grin*

“She had never imagined hats in such profusion of shapes, colours, and textures. There were berets, tricorns, toques, cloches, sun-bonnets, and other styles whose names Selendra did not know.”

 

There are also wonderful hints and glimpses of the history of this world. There is plenty of references made to Yarges and to the Conquest, to weapons being used to overcome dragonkind, how they then used weapons to push back, and to the wars that continue along the borders of their country. Yarges also play some role in the religious split that we see evidence of. In fact, like some of the very best science-fiction, this novel has you so completely involved in the dragon world-view, so thoroughly seeing everything from their perspective, that by the end, when we oh-so-briefly encounter a Yarge, the experience is oddly disconcerting. And that can only attest to Walton’s brilliant writing.

Ultimately though, it’s the characters that make this story so much fun. Bon Agornin’s children: the married Berend and her maiden sisters Selendra and Haner, the parson Penn and the city-working Avan are all captivating in their own ways. Their nearest and dearest equally so: their childhood nanny Amer, Penn’s wife Felin and their dragonettes Wontas and Gerin; Sher and his mother the Exalt Benandi (who I actually really liked, although I suspect I wasn’t supposed to), Avan’s beautifully pink partner Sebeth, and the Dignified Londaver. And there’s plenty of characters to eye-roll at (I think this is the category into which the Exalt Benandi will go for most readers) and outright detest: it’s an absolute joy to hate the Illustrious Daverak and the Blessed Frelt.

But I really don’t want to give too many more of this little book’s delights away. Seriously, it’s, what? … *checking*… 310 pages long … most people could manage it in an afternoon even if I can’t, and you have no reason not to. This is a fabulous book that you absolutely won’t regret reading. It’s smart, funny, brilliantly told (omg, I haven’t even mentioned the narrator, have I? So cool!) and it’s about dragons!! Woo!!

On a scale (*snigger* scale … get it?) of one to ten – and I don’t usually score books because I find that a bit of a weird thing to do – but on such a scale this would score a very respectable (a Dignified even) 9.9. (0.1 points off for not being longer and having no sequels so that I could luxuriate in dragonishness for longer).

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

  1. I really wanted to like this novel and grudgingly got through about a quarter to a third before giving up. I sort of understood what Jo Walton was trying to get at but I found it created too much of a cognitive dissonance in my head. But I’m glad you enjoyed it—I knew it had worth (I’d previously read Among Others) but I think I’d try another one or two of her titles before reconsidering this.

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  2. I like this author already, love the sound of this from your review and with such a high score how could I possibly deny myself the pleasure. It’s on the list. Thanks
    Lynn 😀

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  3. “At the same time, Walton doesn’t have her dragons dining with knives, forks and spoons, or dabbing at their mouths with serviettes. They dine in the dining room, sure, but it’s a bloody carnivorous affair after which they have to be sponged clean by servants.” haha this book sounds bloody fabulous. Ridiculous, yet fabulous. It must’ve been really hard to pull this premise off, but it sounds like a load of fun! I might just check it out. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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