Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is … strange. It’s a sentimental Victorian novel: the main plot turns on a lawsuit brought to settle the estate of a country squire. Subplots mostly involve finding suitable marriage partners for the younger generation, or that generation making efforts to hide their pre-marital arrangements from the older generation. There are parsons, an established Church, old family retainers, farming families in distress, a restless working class in the faraway capital, fashionable hats, unfashionable architecture, and slightly disreputable railroads. So far, so mannerly.
But in Tooth and Claw, all of the characters are dragons. Cannibalistic dragons. As the dying patriarch Bon Agornin says, “It is the way of the dragon to eat each other.” Dragon flesh helps them to grow, helped old Bon reach seventy feet in length, helps the survivors of childhood to grow wings and some fortunate members of the nobility to breathe fire. The lawsuit, in fact, is about the division of an irreplaceable part of Bon’s wealth: his very body. Bon’s son Avan claims that his sister’s husband Daverak ate more than the rightful share of Bon’s body.
Daverak is a local notable, of a rank comparable to the late Bon. He is the villain of the piece, partly as a ruthless and self-centered character, partly as an unthinking embodiment of the system that puts a noble-born and wealthy male at the top of the literal heap. He cannot conceive of things being other than as they are; that makes him understandable, if not less villainous. He is also the prime actor in a scene that left me saying, “Now we see the violence inherent in the system.” For there is considerable violence in the system, sanctioned by the state, and sanctified by the Church. Walton does not hide it, nor does she stray from her course of telling a sentimental story. The social novel has not yet arrived in this particular world. One character dies in the dragon equivalent of childbirth, another reminder of the threat of premature death in a Victorian world, and of that threat’s unequal distribution.
Bonn’s five children are divided by the lawsuit: daughter Berend is married to Daverak, the defendant; son Penn is a parson and attended his father’s deathbed – he has key evidence, but it is under seal of clergy; unmarried daughter Hamer is now a ward of Daverak, and under pressure; the other unmarried daughter Selendra is now attached to Penn’s household and a reluctant plaintiff; Avan does not understand why his siblings are not willing to fight for their rights.
The suit mostly lingers in the background as other aspects of the story move along. Matches are sought for Hamer and Selendra. Picnics are organized. Avan tries to advance his fortunes in the capital. Penn contends with the stringent lady of the demesne that is his parish. Said lady also seeks a match for her only son, Sher, who is a childhood friend of Penn’s. It could almost be a story of English country gentry.
[Selendra] found [railroad travel] all painfully slow and wished she could soar above the train and settle back to it again as she saw some other passengers doing. This, of course, was impossible for a well-brought-up maiden, unless she had someone to accompany her, and for this purpose Penn and Amer [a servant] with their bound wings were both perfectly useless. (p. 90)
Walton also takes her drollery out for exercise on occasion.
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. (p. 246)
Fortunately, Walton is not true to her source material in story length, and the tale moves along briskly, concluding in just over 300 pages. I also liked the verve with which Walton presents this world as it is. She is utterly unapologetic, showing the details of the world as if they were self-evident. Which, for the characters, they are. Why do dragon lawyers wear wigs? Why are there even dragon lawyers at all? Why does dragon society have railroads? How does the Post Office work? Walton no more questions those aspects than a Victorian novelist would have wondered about England’s own institutions.
The novel never wavers in its determination to be both a sentimental novel of manners and a depiction of a society that is red in tooth and claw. It’s fascinating and unsettling, and I can’t think of anything else like it in fantasy.