Jo Walton: TOOTH AND CLAW

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Tor 2003
292 pages
4/5 stars

Tooth and Claw has been on my reading list for absolutely ages, but I’ve been putting it off because, frankly, I’m not big on dragons. However, when I keep hearing that “it’s basically Jane Austen except everyone is a dragon”, there’s no way I’m not curious.

While I do get the Austen reference, it’s also inaccurate.

In the “Dedication, Thanks, and Notes” at the beginning of the book, Walton states very frankly that “[t]his novel owes a lot to Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage”. Now, I have only read one of Trollope’s novels, but it was in the same series as Framley, and his style is very distinct. I’m also a fan of Jane Austen, and it is obvious that despite there being a couple of Austen-like moments, Trollope is the influence, almost to a fault.

Don’t misunderstand; I like this novel very much, partly because it owes so much to Trollope and Victorian literature, and I’m very glad Walton acknowledges it so openly. And boy, it takes some serious skill to emulate Trollope, whose deictic levels are carefully considered but seem light and off-handed, and Walton pulls that off to perfection. This is what a dragon!Trollope might have written, no doubt about that.

However, I did my best to read this book as an independent work, to see what it is like without the context of literary tradition. I have to say that someone who does not like Victorian literature, this is probably very heavy going – it’s a short book but took me some five days to get through. The topics are familiar from Vic Lit and especially Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles; church, marriage, courtship, local politics. Once you figure out the references, such as Irieth being London, the picture will become clear. It’s a social novel, just not with humans.

This is where its main intrigue lies for me. The dragons are, obviously, different from humans, and for example the colour of the scales of a female is indicative of marital and sexual status, and the whirling of the eyes is indicative of emotional turmoil or lying. This kind of features make visible a lot of the things that in humans can easily go unnoticed – imagine wearing your scandals on your skin for all to see! As the dragon society very much observes the same rules as the human Victorians did, the indiscretions and misconducts are forever visible to all others. This creates a necessity for a stricter observation of social code and can, potentially, make or break one’s life forever.

I didn’t give the novel full five stars because of its reading so much like Trollope, but at the same time that resemblance is made with such acumen that I’m in absolute awe. I don’t know how this novel works if you’re not familiar with or just don’t like the Victorian novel at all (if you only have a dislike of Dickens, worry not, Trollope is much funnier!), but I feel this was probably an easier read because of that background. My main tip for starting this novel, though, is to jot down the names and relationships of the characters when they are first introduced, especially the Agornin family. You will get used to them and as you get more familiar with them they will be easier to remember, but I would have found it helpful.

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