Aug 17, 2010

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw is the perfect blend of fantasy and the Victorian novel: the story is about a family of some social standing but limited fortune, and it begins with the death of Bon Agonin, the family patriarch. Bon Agonin passes away without leaving much of a dowry for his two unmarried daughters, Selendra and Haner. Unable to support themselves, the two sisters have to rely on their brothers, Penn and Avan, and to hope to somehow be able to secure respectable husbands who’ll overlook the matter of the lack of monetary encouragement. But much like Austen’s heroines, the two sisters would much rather marry for love.

To their distress, Selendra and Haner have to be separated shortly after their father’s death, as neither of their brothers can afford to take them both in. Selendra goes to live with Penn, a respectable parson, while Avan, unable to take a maiden to the city where he lives and works without risking tainting her name (and therefore her marriage prospects), has to ask their older sister Berend and her husband Daverak to take in Haner. However, things get even more complicated when Avan decides to sue Daverak for taking far more of Bon Agonin’s inheritance than what was his rightful share – and Selendra and Haner know that as long as the feud lasts, they have no hope of being allowed to see each other.

By the way, if you’re wondering what exactly makes this story fantasy, that would be the fact that all the characters are dragons. But don’t let that make you doubt their humanity or emotional complexity, or the intricacies of their social world. I suppose that more than anything else, Tooth and Claw is a fantasy of manners (a term I learned from Memory and absolutely love). It’s a social comedy, a Victorian romance, and an absolutely delightful story.

Tooth and Claw has been referred to as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and with good reason. Perhaps this makes it sound cutesy or gimmicky, but trust me, it absolutely isn’t. It’s also not a parody of the Victorian novel – there are touches of humour, but they’re mostly subtle and Austenesque. What this is is a novel that takes the themes of actual Victorian novels – powerless women who must rely on marriage to avoid poverty, ambitious young men, money, love, the social world, class, social inequality, women who lose their reputation through no fault of their own, snobbery, inheritances, respectability and reputation, and so on – and pushes them to their farthest consequences.

In the prologue of Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton says she wanted to create a fantasy world in which all the social conventions of the Victorian world were literally true. A great example of this is the fact that dragon maidens change the colour of their scales to bright pink once they have been sexually awakened. There is no hiding the fact that one is a “fallen woman” – not without the aid of risky herbal brews, anyway. This means that in Tooth and Claw, the ridiculous idea that in women budding sexual feelings in general and virginity loss in particularly entail some sort of irrevocable change is actually real. Of course, one could argue that the social reality of this myth in the Victorian world (and even today, in some parts of the world more obviously than in others) was enough to make it real, in the sense that it affected the lives of countless women. It’s exactly this idea that Jo Walton explores here, with very interesting results.

Class is another one of the major themes of Tooth and Claw – the story focuses on an impoverished but still privileged family, but there are hints of the struggles of those who work to keep their world in order. Haner in particular takes an interest on the treatment of servants, who all have their wings bound (another social reality make literally true), and Selendra is called a radical at a party for daring to say that she sees people as human beings (or, as the case may be, dragons as dragon beings), regardless of their social stance. Lest these seem unrealistic attitudes for genteel young ladies, let me clarify that the two sisters are particularly sensitive to classism because their father made his fortune through trade, which automatically disqualifies him from respectability in the eyes of some. This is only an example of what Jo Walton does so well here – she explores the intricate power dynamics associated with class, the subtle differences in rank, and the endless tensions these originated even among the genteel.

Tooth and Claw couldn’t rightfully be called Pride and Prejudice with dragons if it weren’t also a love story. And it is – or rather, it’s several love stories. There are happy endings all around, and though they may be predictable they aren’t any less charming because of that. Even though you can tell from the very beginning that everyone is bound to get their heart’s desire in the end, this doesn’t make the character’s struggles until they get there any less real or emotionally resonant.

I’ve mentioned that there was some humour earlier – this can mostly be seen in the narrator’s tone, which is pokerfaced most of the time but includes occasional remarks such as,
It has been baldly stated in this narrative that Penn and Sher were friends at school and later at the Circle, and being gentle readers and not cruel and hungry readers who would visit a publisher’s offices with the intention of rending and eating an author who had displeased them, you have taken this matter on trust.
Not to mention chapter titles like, “The narrator is forced to confess to having lost count of both proposals and confessions.” As everything else about this novel, the one is perfect, and it adds a lot to the charm of the story.

Jo Walton also says in the prologue that Tooth and Claw is partially based on Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. If I were given to feeling embarrassed about gaps in my reading, it’d be my secret shame that I call myself a lover of all things Victorians and yet have never read any Trollope at all. Where do you think I should begin?

Interesting bits:
“Most maidens in your position would be only too glad to have any Exalted running after them, let alone one as handsome and amusing as Sher,” Felin said, deeply disappointed.
“There is so little power that we have, as females,” Selendra said. “Only to be able to choose to accept or reject a lover. We have to wait for them to ask, even then. You’re telling me to think about wealth and position and disregard what I feel.”

Bon Argonin’s gold, not that which he had passed on to his three younger children, but that which he had used three hundred years before to purchase the estate of Argonin and the title of Dignified, had been made in ways those dignified, illustrious, exalted, august and eminent personages we have chosen to make lords among us lump together and dismiss in a word as “trade”. True, Bon had shaken off these associations as soon as he could. He had used them to climb and achieve position in the world and, once he had achieved the position he desired, had dabbled in them no more. He had purchased his establishment, married his ill-drowried but indubitably gently born bride, and proceeded thenceforth to amass wealth and improve his estate through honest farming. All the same, through the succeeding centuries the stench of trade had clung around him a little. Much though he might speak of his youth on the Telstie estate with his widowed mother, and of his estate of Argonin, never mentioning the intervening period, there remained something of the city about him. The cities, as hardly needs to be mentioned, are anathema to all right-thinking dragons, except only for Irieth, and Irieth only when the Noble Assembly is sitting, or in the months of Budding and Flowering in those years, very rare of late, when the Noble Assembly shall hold no session.
Reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Stella Matutina
The Literary Omnivore
You Can Never Have Too Many Books

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Sounds interesting and intriguing! I've not read any books that revolves around dragons alone so I'll have to look out for this book. Thanks for the lovely review, Ana!

  2. I was so into this until I came to the dragons part. I have a thing with talking animals and humanoid creatures, but this does sound fun. You have me considering it a little bit.

  3. Oh neat! I love how you waited until the third paragraph to let it slip that the main characters are dragons.

  4. Well, this definitely sounds unlike anything I've ever read...and I'm definitely intrigued. Yep, I'm continually amazed by the incredible variety in your reading...and how by how you manage to make me think I need to read everything you write about! But don't worry, I actually do consider that a good thing--I couldn't count how many wonderful reading experiences I've had that I wouldn't have had if not for you. :)

  5. Tooth and Claw is so wonderful, and I really like how it takes what could be a gimmick and turns it into social commentary. I especially loved the fact that the upper classes quite literally eat the lower classes. It's so well done!

    I have to admit, I haven't read any Trollope at all. Jo Walton is actually doing a series of book recommendations over at Tor's blog, and recently covered 'T'- she suggests starting with Trollope with Is He Popenjoy? or Phineas Finn, both of which are stand-alone (although Phineas Finn is part of a series).

  6. Hmmm... very interesting premise! I love the idea that it looks at class and gender, I just can't picture it with dragons though ;)

  7. This is the strangest book I think I've ever heard of!

  8. "Fantasy of manners" is a wonderful phrase.

  9. I keep desperately wanting to read this book, and forgetting that the main library doesn't have a copy of it. The branch libraries have it, but I never remember to place a hold on it before I go to the library. I've just checked out Farthing and Ha'Penny by Walton, though, and I'm excited to read them.

  10. Pride and Prejudice with dragons? You sold me! Also, my daughter is in love with all things dragon, so I bet she would love this book as well. I am really glad you shared this review because you have no idea how hard it is to find a good book about dragons that she hasn't read yet. Thanks for the excellent review, Ana!

  11. I don't read a lot of fantasy, but I might enjoy this one. I think one thing that turns me off on a lot of fantasy are the odd, unpronounceable names and made up creatures. Great review!

  12. OK, there are so many things about this book that make it sound like it shouldn't work: dragons in Victorian England?!? Crazy talk!

    BUT you really made a compelling case for this one, and while my initial reaction was "you've got to be kidding me", after reading your review, I admit to being more than a little intrigued. So thank you, because without you I never would have hard about this book, never mind have considered seeking it out!

  13. This sounds so cool! I love the fact that the characters are dragons and still feel so human - that's really unique. I must check this out for sure.

  14. Been looking for a copy of this for some time now when I first heard it's about dragons and manners. I mean, gee, that thought alone made me laugh plus the fact that this seemed to be well-received is also a factor. Hope to read this soon.

  15. Ahhhhh! This sounds like a trip! What an interesting twist to a somewhat classic storyline...

  16. I loved the cover when it popped up in my feed reader, and reading the description of the book... it sounds wonderful. Must add it to the list.

  17. VERY interesting. Austen with dragons? I'm in! Great review.

  18. Sneaky... I love that you didn't mention the dragons until a bit later in the review :)

    I don't know if this book is really for me. I think it's one of those I really have to be in the mood for or otherwise I just won't like. I mean, I buy into vampires, werewolves and ghosts so why not dragons right? I'll think about this one!

  19. I've been meaning to read Walton. It sounds like this is the one I should start with!

  20. Not sure I can really get behind a dragon love story. Hmmmm....

  21. When u mentioned dragons... i was like...what?!
    Great review! I would definitely give this a try.

  22. This sounds like a great book! I think I need to give it a try. How did you find out about this book?

  23. I would be sitting here scratching my head, except for the reason that 1) I trust you and 2) I have had this book on my list to read forever because of a review I read years before I started blogging. For some reason, when I read the review, I really have no recollection that it had anything to do with dragons...

  24. This one sounds absolutely fascinating to me! So much so that I'm going to track down a copy right now!

  25. One of my friends has this Tooth and Claw book. She told me that I must read it. That is why I am looking for review about this book. Thank god that I found it in your blog. Now I am so interested to read that book.

  26. Hooray for Tooth and Claw! I'm so glad you liked this (although I knew that you would)! You do a really nice job describing why this book is so charming, and how Walton manages to fit dragons into Victorian conventions so naturally.

  27. You had me with the first sentence and I was already opening my wishlist but… dragons? Really? I’m still not sure about that…

  28. Hi, hope it's OK to contact you here. We would love to include your blog on our giveaway search engine: Giveaway Scout ( Have a look and if interested, use our online form to add your blog ( ). thanks, Josh

  29. You had me at Dragons!

  30. I too like Victorian literature, but haven't read Trollope. I have some laying around the house here somewhere though! I just want to read too many things and this means there are some books that I really should have read already that just keep getting bumped for whatever has lately caught my interest. I've heard about this book now from you and Memory. It's on my list of things to read :o)

  31. This sounds really different, even from Naomi Novik's Napoleonic dragon books. I'm sold!

  32. I don't recall having heard about this before, but it does sound like something I would really love to read!

    Thanks for the review.

  33. The idea of Victorian dragons makes me giggle.

  34. Melody: I'm not sure if I'd say this revolves around dragons - it's hard to explain, but you'll see if you read it :P

    Nicole: You'll forget they're even dragons, promise!

    Ladytink: I'm sneaky like that :P

    Debi: Well, I'm glad you don't secretly hate me for it or anything :P

    Clare: I loved that too! She must have had a lot of fun thinking up ways of making all those social realities literally true. And thank you for that link! I think I'll follow her advice on Trollope.

    Amy: It doesn't really matter that they're dragons, promise!

    Amanda: I know it sounds that way, but it's not that strange, really :P

    Stephanie: Yes, isn't it? It's probably my favourite type of fantasy too.

    Jenny: Oooh, I've read wonderful things about Farthing in particular. I look forward to hearing what you think of them.

    Zibilee: You're welcome! I hope she enjoys it - and convinces you to read it :P

    Kathy: Yeah, a lot of people feel that way. These names may be strange, but at least they're pronounceable :P

    Steph: It's not quite Victorian England, more like a parallel world with the same sort of social arrangements. I know it sounds strange, but it really, really works. I'm glad I made you at least consider it!

    Emidy: I actually think that no matter what an author writers about - people, elves, rabbits, aliens, mice, hobbits, dragons, dogs, etc - we have no way of NOT making it about humans. We can't really see outside ourselves to that extent, I don't think.

    Lightheaded: I hope you'll enjoy it! And I think you will :)

    She: I know! It's a story that's vaguely familiar to anyone who likes Austen, Heyer or Trollope, and yet she makes it new.

  35. Fence: I think you'd really enjoy it!

    Celi.a: Not quite Austen, but certainly Austen-y. Enjoy :P

    Iliana: Now I kind of wish I hadn't mentioned it at all, as I see it put some of you off :P It really isn't *about* dragons, I promise.

    Gavin: It was a wonderful intro for me :)

    Lenore: It's only about dragons in the same sense that Animal Farm is about pigs :P

    Veens: Thank you! I'm glad I made you get over that initial "What?" :P

    Vasilly: I think the first time I heard of it was at Fyrefly's blog.

    Sandy: lol - that's because their being dragons is really really not that important. I know it sounds impossible, but it isn't :P Anyway, I do appreciate the trust, and I hope you'll enjoy this when you get to it!

    Staci: Mission accomplished, then :P

    Fyrefly: Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention!

    Alex: As I was telling Lenore, it's like Animal Farms and pigs - the story is not really *about* them, even if all the characters are pigs :P

    Josh Healy: I seldom do giveaways so I don't think including me is worth your time.

    Rhinoa: I'm sure you'd enjoy this!

    Terri B: I know - story of my life :P

    Jeanne: Naomi Novki's books do sound different, especially because they're about dragons living alongside humans and this is about a society made exclusively of dragons. But I still really want to read Novik :P

    Marg: I think you would!

    Emily Jane: I can see why, but it loses its ridiculousness rather quickly once you start reading :P

  36. I'd never heard of this one, but I'm duly intrigued! Will add it to the list of books to hunt down :)

    I haven't read any Trollope either *for shame*. My experience only extends to a couple of BBC series, but the Barchester stories seem like a good start.

  37. Now, this is a special one. I will have to check this out because I've not come across something like this. Thanks for once again bringing this to our attention.

    I'm sorry I haven't been visiting for so long. I finally am able to make it and I'm so glad because I never fail to find interesting reads from your blog.

  38. Yay, I knew you'd like it!

    It made me want to read Trollope, too, but I'm also a little stumped as to where to start. I'm glad Clare linked to Walton's suggestion post; I'm going to comb through it.

  39. I finally got around to reading this one, thanks to your recommendation and enjoyed it hugely.

    Must keep an eye our for more books by Walton now.

  40. I'm so far behind in your reviews, Nymeth! I just saw that you read this, and I am so happy you enjoyed it so much!! yaaaay! It was a very enjoyable book to read, so delightful. :-)

  41. WOW, how did I miss this last year?! It sounds perfect to me! Straight onto the wish list it goes.


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