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Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton, Tor, 2003, 253 pp.
Tooth and Claw is based on an idea that could have gone totally, disastrously wrong: a fantasy story where all the characters are dragons. A lazy writer would simply swap the dragons into a story about humans without any other alterations; Walton follows through on a much more ambitious strategy. Tooth and Claw is essentially a Victorian novel written as if that strange worldview actually suited the characters in it, rather than the other way around (see my comment later on the theme of biology as destiny). It's an approach that has to prove itself to the wary reader every step of the way, and the surprise of Walton's writing is that she far exceeds expectations. The story is driven by and the ending succumbs to some of the same ways of thinking that are implicitly criticized, but otherwise Tooth and Claw is a remarkably polished and moving package, self-contained as well, all attributes not often ascribed to fantasy novels.
The story begins with a dying patriarch. Bon Agornin has lived a full life of a few hundred years, and he has five living children: two unmarried daughters, Haner and Selendra, still living at home; an unmarried son named Avan who lives in the big city of Irieth; a son named Penn, married with dragonets, and now a parson; and the oldest daughter, Berend, who is married to a nearby aristocrat, the Illustrious Daverak. The children and in-laws form most of the main group of characters in the story, and the story begins when their father has died and Daverak takes more than his fair share of the father's body. In one the best bits of speculation in the book, Walton's dragons grow to the natural length of seven feet, and if they want to grow longer, they have to eat the flesh of other dragons. A whole system has grown up around the magic properties of dragonflesh and I'll be discussing this further. In any case, Daverak's actions drive a wedge in the family. Two other things happen at this point: it is decided that Haner will go live with Daverak and Berend while Selendra will go with Penn to stay with Penn's wife Felin, and the second thing is an encounter between Selendra and a parson named Frelt. Young maiden dragons have gold-coloured scales; if they fall in love, their scales turn pink. This process can be forced on maiden dragons by sudden proximity, and this is what happens to Selendra. Frelt isn't sure if he succeeded, and Selendra's servant finds a potion to turn Selendra's scales back to gold. The only problem is that there's now a chance that when Selendra finds someone she's truly in love with, her scales won't be able to turn colour.
The characters of Tooth and Claw are an extraordinarily effective hybrid between their Victorian and dragon natures; Walton has clearly put a lot of thought into the way this society operates and how the dragons would live. And Daverak is one of those characters who the reader will love to hate. He's smug, pitiless, and an example of how the system of aristocracy is not working very well. Needless to say, Haner's life in Daverak's household is not pleasant. There are three other characters in the book who are not members of the immediate family. Penn's parsonage is under the sometimes benign sponsorship of the Exalt Benandi and her wayward son Sher. Selendra gets to know the Benandi mother and son quite well now she has to live with Penn and Felin. The last main character of the book is Sebeth, the sometime lover of Avan back in the city, and a dragon who has her own tragic history.
Sebeth, more than anyone, is an example of the way the ideas and sympathies of the book operate. She was kidnapped as a young maiden, but she turned pink before her family could pay the ransom. Now she lives a strange life in the city, caught in an unmarriageable state. As another dragon says about her late in the book: "She was not maiden, wife, or widow, there were no words for what she was" (232). The reputation of a young maiden is literalized in a particularly cruel way here, biology as destiny to the infinite degree. As Walton points out in her opening notes: "It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. 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" (5). The genius of the book is that it spins out details around these laws of biology, such as the potion that saves Selendra from marrying Frelt at the beginning of the book or the ways in which Sebeth gets through everyday life in the city.
Another key aspect of Tooth and Claw is the consumption of dragonflesh. This is another consummately cruel way of literalizing a metaphor, in this case of stratified social structure. The servants and the farmers who support the aristocracy are not allowed to eat dragonflesh, so they will always be seven feet long and no longer. The Illustrious Daverak often goes beyond his duty of ensuring that dragonets in his domain are healthy ones, eating dragonets that may or may not have survived on their own. In this world, the rich are going to get richer and larger and stronger and the poor are going to stay poor and powerless. On a related note, Walton's uncanny pastiche of Victorian novels has one of its best in-the-style authorial intrusions on the topic of the eating of dragons. Later in the book:
Other such moments are scattered throughout the book but this is the funniest. Without these touches of levity, the book could have gotten quite grim, with maidens in disrepute and ravening aristocracy.
Walton's Tooth and Claw was a pleasant surprise for me because I came to the book with low expectations. I hope I have conveyed some of the appeal of the book and some of its rich strangeness (I've even left out whole topics such as religion and heresy, and wars with a different species, essentially humans, named the Yarge). I'm not sure if a sequel would have the same impact as this book but I'm curious to see what Walton will do next.
Last modified: April 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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