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Tooth and Claw
Jo Walton
Tor, 256 pages

Tooth and Claw
Jo Walton
Jo Walton lives in Swansea, Wales. Her first novel was The King's Peace.

Jo Walton Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Prize in the Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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"She'd like me to bring a dragon home, I suppose. It would serve her right if I did, some creature that would make the house intolerable to her."
This quote, found at the beginning of Tooth and Claw, is from Anthony Trollope's novel Framley Parsonage, published monthly through 1860-1 in Cornhill Magazine, a new periodical aimed at the family market.

Framley Parsonage, for those genre readers who haven't dipped much past the Freshman Lit toehold in the vast ocean of 19th century novels, comes more or less in the middle of Trollope's Barsetshire series, which follow the lives of a set of primarily gentry and ecclesiastical families in an imaginary English county.

Framley Parsonage was considered by many reviewers and readers of the time to be a pleasant, pastoral tale, to contrast with the fraughtly moody writings of the likes of Wilkie Collins, also popular at the time. The quote Walton chose (printed below a splendid poem by Tennyson from the same period) was spoken by Lord Lufton, a disgruntled young aristocrat, about his mother. This respectable lady had her sights on a daughter-in-law who would bring a fortune, if not titled relatives, to her marriage with her son; the son wanted to marry Lucy, the penniless sister of his best friend, Mark Robards, a parson.

Trollope somewhat disingenuously claimed that there was no heroism and no villainy in his novel. Mrs. Gaskell, wife of a minister and writer of the poignant Cranford and the sublime Wives and Daughters, wrote that she wished it would "go on for ever and ever."

When I first read Framley Parsonage, it did not strike me as gentle, idyllic, or pastoral. It was a book about ambition. Not one major character in it lacked ambition; what varied were the goals and just how far people were willing to go to attain those goals. Sowerby, the bankrupt owner of a great estate, connived with legal blackmail to get money enough to stanch the bleeding away of his patrimony; Griselda Grantly, the beauty of the countryside, coldly and deliberately sold herself to a fabulously wealthy, titled dolt so that she could reign above everyone as a Marchioness.

I mention this novel at length not because Walton has mapped her fantasy directly over it, but because she hasn't. The opening of Tooth and Claw is a deathwatch over an old dragon, Bon Agornin; the equivalent story-point, the death of Mark Robards' father, occurs a hundred pages into Framley Parsonage, takes place off-stage, and of course does not feature the old pastor's children crowding round to eat his body before it has cooled.

Tooth and Claw -- ambition. Though Trollope acknowledged a "little tuft-hunting" in his book, meaning social climbing, the modern reader will be struck how pervasive rank is in every aspect of life, even in the way that the strange, fiery parson Crawley cannot visit his old friend who has been promoted above him. There is a secondary thread through the novel wherein the question of the morality of a parson hunting is considered; it seems to occur to no one that a lot of people on horseback, aided by a pack of dogs, chasing after a lone fox in order to tear it to pieces is cruel. The question has to do with how seemly it is for a parson to be partaking in a pleasure-sport reserved for aristocrats.

The ritual of eating a dead dragon is what launches the story in Tooth and Claw. Bon's powerful and demanding son-in-law, the Illustrious Daverak, takes more than his share for his own family, despite the wishes of Bon and the claims of Bon's other children, the Blessed Penn (the counterpart to Mark Robards), Avan, the brother who works in the city, and the two younger maiden sisters, Selendra and Haner.

Avan decides the next day to institute a lawsuit against Daverak. Meanwhile Selendra sustains an unlucky marriage proposal from the obsequious Blessed Frelt, the local divine, after which the household is split up, Haner going to live with Daverak and Berend (her older sister) and Selendra to live with the Blessed Penn and his wife and dragonets.

This lawsuit is the backbone of the story, to which we keep returning. Avan lives with a delightful and mysterious female dragon named Sebeth who works with him in the city's planning commission -- and who is a secret member of the Old Religion. Yes, religion plays a part in Jo Walton's work, as it does in the Victorian novel, but Walton does not settle for the easy parody of organized religion, made up of fools and fakes, that has become a standard in much genre fiction today.

Interspersed between scenes concerning the lawsuit we visit Penn's household, where Selendra and Sher Benandi meet. As in Trollope's novel they make friends instantly, he by showing compassion, and she by responding to it; another shared plot-point is how Sher's mother, the Exalt Benandi, tries to control her son's life and select a suitable mate for him. Gelener Telstie is as beautiful as her counterpart, Griselda Grantly, as calculating and dull. But even so, the stories overlap here just to wing away again over landscapes that only match at key points; Gelener's fate is not at all like Griselda's.

The veneer of civilization over savagery is one of the these touchpoints. Walton's dragons, despite their titles, their trains, their fancy hats, are not the literary equivalent of cheery plush toys. It would have been easy enough to use the Victorian novel as background for a work of whimsy, but one of the pleasures of Tooth and Claw is the world building. The hats serve social and even legal purpose, the trains haul platforms for dragons to ride on. When these dragons eat, they do not use dragonish teeth to sip tea from porcelain cups, they tear apart their meat, splashing themselves with blood, and channels run down the sides of proper dining rooms to drain off the residue of their meals. Males have claws and can breathe fire, females do not. Females write, males only with difficulty because of those claws. Females mate knowing that a clutch of dragonets can kill them.

The book is filled with wonderful touches, glimpses of a world with a past that one wishes would be illuminated in more stories. The narrator, who can see into everyone's head just as in Victorian novels, employs heraldic terms to illuminate the dragons' movements. The echoes from Trollope's novel add polysemous levels to this reading experience without revealing everything about the ending.

Can this book be enjoyed by readers not familiar with Trollope's novel? Of course it can. No one needs to be familiar with Victorian literature to enjoy a well-written story about dragons. The pacing is masterful, the characters distinctive, the climax exciting. What is very likely is that, on finishing this book, a reader might very well wish to seek out Trollope's novel-and then come back to read Tooth and Claw again. It's definitely one for the Favorites shelf.

Copyright © 2003 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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