Review: Tooth and Claw

Published in 2003, the premise of Jo Walton’s fourth novel Tooth and Claw is, quite literally and without exaggeration, “Anthony Trollope with dragons”. Here’s Walton on its genesis:

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.

The novel begins with the death of Dignified Bon Agornin, an event which precipitates a dispute among his descendants about the distribution of his wealth and body – for dragons gain physical strength, and thus social prestige, by consuming dragonflesh. The landed gentry eat up the ailing dragonets of their tenant farmers, as well as their own children; disputes formal and informal are resolved by fights to the death; male dragons’ lives are a constant fight for dragonflesh and social position. Female dragons, meanwhile, have hands instead of claws, are liable to die if they have too many clutches of eggs too closely together, and, most significantly, blush a permanent red if a male dragon touches them – which is fine if the dragons intend to marry, but if not the female is considered damaged goods.

It’s a clever conceit, literalising the real savagery that lay behind the polite fictions of Victorian society: dragon courtesy dictates, for instance, that dragonflesh should only be consumed in the presence of a parson, allowing the gentry to maintain the fiction that gobbling up sick children is a civilised thing to do. So we have what is on its surface a “light and bright and sparkling”* novel about the fortunes of gentlewomen who need to find husbands (the marriage market is, unsurprisingly, a literal thing in Tooth and Claw, although we never see it up close and personal) and their noble but socially precarious relatives, which is actually interrogating the class and gender assumptions of an era we still venerate.

There are some odd tensions, though, even given this framework, that I’m not sure the novel works out very productively. The substance of the dispute over Bon Agornin’s body is basically that the old dragon intended for his less-established children, Avan, an up-and-coming official in the capital city of Irieth and his two unmarried sisters Haner and Selendra, to take the lion’s share of his body; a provision that his son-in-law Daverak completely ignores, taking the largest share for himself, his wife (Bon Agornin’s eldest daughter) Berend and their dragonets. A furious Avan opens a lawsuit against Daverak, putting his sisters in an awkward position, given that Haner is to live with Daverak and Berend.

The portrayal of Daverak is the source of one of the novel’s odd tensions: he is a bully who abuses his social power, eating the healthy dragonets of his tenant farmers as well as elderly, ailing or disobedient servants, indirectly killing his wife by forcing her to produce too many eggs too soon and eventually making Haner’s safety and dowry contingent on her cooperation with him against Avan. The story of the novel is in an important way the story of how Daverak gets his comeuppance; how this rotten apple is pruned from the tree of dragon society. But the fact that Daverak is a monster distracts from the fact that dragon society is itself monstrously unequal; Daverak’s punishment for abusing his power in dramatic ways doesn’t undo that fact. It’s like – the novel ultimately asks us, at the level of plot, to focus on individual power rather than collective power structures.

What makes this particularly strange is that Walton explicitly points up the inequality in draconic (and by extension Victorian) power structures beyond even the literalisation of savagery inherent in her premise. Haner’s first-hand observation of how Daverak treats his servants radicalises her, and she becomes interested in a movement working towards easing the lot of the serving class. But within the novel her interest is treated as an eccentricity, and the one time she actually does anything meaningful about it – she goes to meet the author of a radical book on the subject – operates only as an inciting moment for the novel’s dramatic denouement (Daverak believes she has actually gone to meet Avan to conspire against him, and locks her up in her bedroom). The novel closes shortly afterwards, in Shakespearean-comedic fashion, with Avan, Selendra and Haner all safely partnered with good matches; no further mention of actual social change. I suppose this is a weakness of the Victorian novels on which Tooth and Claw is modelled, but it’s not lampshaded in a way that would make the repetition of that weakness ironic; it’s just a weakness.

I kind of want to emphasise that this is quite a productive tension, though, in that Tooth and Claw gives the reader a lot to think with when it comes to power relations in Victorian (and modern) texts: how drives toward social justice are defanged and folded into the status quo; how the law works to uphold existing social structures; how monstrous power structures perpetuate themselves. Plus, “Victorian novel with dragons” is just fun, no matter how you slice it. Tooth and Claw isn’t a perfect book but it’s a surprisingly meaty one – I kind of wish more SFF authors would try this sort of thing in a way that isn’t completely superficial.


*Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.