Tooth and Claw
by Jo Walton
336pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.92/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.84/5

Tooth and Claw, one of Jo Walton’s earlier novels, won the 2004 World Fantasy Award. Though it is often compared to Jane Austen’s work, the author cites Victorian novels in general and Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage in particular as inspirations in her Dedication, Thanks, and Notes, adding “this novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like…if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” She imagined this by populating Tooth and Claw with dragons who literally grow stronger by eating the flesh of weak or deceased dragons—yet are very aware of propriety—and the result is surprisingly delightful!

As the Dignified Bon Agornin lies near death, his family gathers to observe the rituals: his son Penn, a parson, will attend him through the final moments of his life, and after his passing the entire family will distribute his wealth according to his will and devour his body. Since Penn and his sister Berend are already established, it’s Bon’s wish that they each take one memorial piece of gold and divide the rest among their three siblings who are not yet settled. Penn reassures his father that this will be so and that these three will also receive the greater portion of his corpse since they need his strength most.

However, the traditional feast does not go according to plan. Berend’s husband Illustrious Daverak believes the allotment of Bon’s wealth does not include his remains and refuses to stop gorging when he’s told he’s already had his share. The local parson supports Illustrious Daverak’s assumption unless Penn divulges the entirety of his conversation with his dying father—which he cannot do without bringing shame upon himself since he allowed Bon to make a confession as practiced by the old religion. Penn has no choice but to step aside since he cannot fight the other dragon either, and Illustrious Daverak, Berend, and his dragonets leave less than half the body for those who were supposed to consume most of it.

The three yet-to-be-established siblings feel robbed of their inheritance, and Avan decides to take Illustrious Daverak to court even though his two equally wronged sisters cannot contribute funds, being dependent on the gold for their dowries—and each is being sent to the household of one of their established siblings until a suitable marriage can be arranged, meaning one of them is also dependent on the goodwill of Illustrious Daverak.

Though I’ve often heard that Tooth and Claw is wonderful, I was still a little skeptical about its premise. It seemed like it would be difficult to imagine dragons in a world of “politics and train stations, of churchmen and family retainers, of courtship and country houses,” as described on the back of the book. I was also doubtful because dragons literally eating the weak and deceased to gain strength also sounded like it may be full of not-so-subtle social commentary. Having now read it, I can say that both of these are true—it is not at all easy to visualize large dragons riding trains and carriages, writing letters, or donning fashionable hats and it is full of rather literal social commentary—and yet Jo Walton somehow makes it all work beautifully. Tooth and Claw is a charming story of family, courtship, and survival as seen through the eyes of flesh-eating (but often very proper!) dragons.

It took two or three chapters for it to hook me, but I soon found it a quite immersive book that I didn’t want to put down. The narration is delightful and occasionally entertainingly self aware, and the social order and characters are quite interesting to read about. The stories of all three sisters highlight the problems they face because they are female dragons, as does the disparity between their treatment and concerns and those of their brothers. Selendra’s emphasizes the double standards of sexism and how easily a female dragon’s reputation can be destroyed while the male’s stays intact for similar indiscretions. In Tooth and Claw, female dragons actually turn pink when too close to a male so all can see an unmarried dragon is no maiden. Selendra encounters this when a suitor leans on her as she’s turning down his proposal, and though she finds a cure, she has to worry that it will work too well and she won’t blush if she does want to become betrothed later.

Selendra’s story is most prominent, but Haner also has some time in the spotlight as she confronts apprehension about her dowry, marriage prospects, and Illustrious Daverak. Seeing how her brother-in-law treats his household makes her realize just how wrong an institution she’s taken for granted throughout her entire life truly is: that of servitude. Haner seeks to discover others who share her views and who have radical ideas about the wrongness of binding the wings of those who do not choose to be bound.

Although I enjoyed reading about both Haner and Selendra, Berend (whose story is the most heartbreaking) was the most interesting character of the three. After overhearing Penn and her husband arguing about the portioning of her father’s body, she impresses Penn by taking “a most diplomatic bite” (pp. 29) that should satisfy both sides of the argument: a single chunk of flesh encompassing much of the chest. During a later conversation with Haner, it becomes quite clear that Berend thoughtfully analyzes her situation and tries to make the best of the unfairness in the world.

The two brothers also have obstacles, with Penn worrying about honoring his father’s wish for confession and Avan with taking his brother-in-law to court and trying to keep his position in his office. There are also a host of other wonderful characters, especially Sher. He’s the son of the Exalt, an older dragon who is quite snobbish about social class, but he’s carefree and not at all like his mother—and he sets his sights on Selendra despite her meager dowry and the fact that the Exalt does not think her father’s origins are fit to be discussed in polite company.

Tooth and Claw is utterly enchanting despite taking a little bit of time to become engaging. Though its explorations of gender and class are not subtle—and are, in fact, about as literal as possible—they fit with the story and world, shedding a bright light on the wrongness of how some are treated. It’s also a thoroughly entertaining Victorian-esque tale with delightful narration and an endearing cast of dragons, and I recommend it highly.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is September’s selection from a poll on Patreon.