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Jo Walton – Tooth and Claw

February 17, 2010

15. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (2003)

Length: 332 pages
Genre: Definitely fantasy, sort of historical fiction, and kind of romance, as well. Victorian Fantasy, basically.

Started: 05 February 2010
Finished: 07 February 2010

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Secret Santa.
Why do I have it? See above.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 20 December 2009.

A comedy of
manners, complete with dragons
red in tooth and claw.

Summary: A father, who has worked his way up from humble origins to become part of the gentry, dies, leaving behind five children. The elder two are well established in society – the son as a parson of a well-respected estate, and the daughter married to a rich and powerful if rather boorish and ill-tempered nobleman. The younger three, however, are only beginning to make their way in society: a son who is engaged in business in the city, and two unmarried daughters. Upon their father’s death, the two sisters are sent to live with their siblings. One, who had previously narrowly escaped having a unpleasant marriage proposal forced on her, finds herself attracted to a young adventurer who is out of her league, given her station in society and her meager dowry. The other, appalled by her brother-in-law’s brutish behavior towards the servants and local tenants, secretly becomes a radical abolitionist. The younger son, meanwhile, is bringing suit against his brother-in-law over the matter of their father’s will, and the distribution of their inheritance.

Oh, did I mention that these are all dragons? Yeah.

Review: I’m sure Jane Austen would never have predicted the recent rash of Austenophilic sequels and retellings and spin-off novels, and I’m very sure that she would never have predicted one with dragons as protagonists. I certainly read the blurb on the back that called Tooth and Claw “the Pride and Prejudice of the dragon world” with raised eyebrows. But, to my great surprise, it totally worked. In fact, Walton makes traditional dragon lore fit into Victorian society conventions so well that I can’t believe that no one had ever done it before.

This novel was a little slow to start, but by the end it wound up completely charming me. In truth, the slow beginning is probably more my fault than the book’s, and might even be considered a strength rather than a weakness. Tooth and Claw is a Victorian novel not only in plot, but also in writing style, and it’s done quite effectively. However, Victorian language has a hard time making it from my eyes to my brain (which is why I tend to listen to the classics on audiobook rather than read them), so it took me a while to get accustomed to the flow and pace of the writing, and that kept me at arm’s distance from the story for a while. However, Walton builds her world and her characters so deftly that before too long I was totally engrossed.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about this book was how it simultaneously managed to sweep me up in the story, while never letting me forget that it was about dragons. I’d be reading along, totally caught up in battles over inheritance, and deathbed confessions, and romances between those from totally different stations in life, just as you would expect from any Victorian novel, and then I’d remember that the inheritance in question was the right of children to eat their deceased father, and the absurdity of the whole thing would catch up with me, and I’d start giggling uncontrollably. I think Walton was well aware of that contrast, and used it to great advantage; playing up the humor and dropping in the occasional sly narrative aside to let us know that she was laughing with us.

It has been baldly state 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. 264)

The only weak point I noticed was that a few of the characters were less developed than others. In a book with this large of a cast, that’s only to be expected, but I would have happily have read a longer book that had given everyone their full time to shine. Other than that, the multiple storylines were handled well; I thought each was compelling enough that switching between them never made me lose interest. Overall, although this book took a while to fully capture my attention, I enjoyed it immensely, and am so glad I stuck with it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The obvious recommendation is that people who like Naomi Novik’s books will almost certainly like this one, and vice-versa. I think fans of Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer’s style of historical fantasy will also get a kick out of Tooth and Claw. But actually, I’d even recommend this to Austen fans who don’t normally read fantasy… you might be surprised how well dragons fit into the Victorian world.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Somewhat shockingly, I couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body.

Cover Thoughts: Nicely understated, but I wish there was something about it that said “Victorian novel” a little more loudly.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 124: “It was a dim vault, barely half underground, half-filled with dragons, many of them with the bound wings of servitude, all of them small, hardly one of them longer than seven feet except the priest, who stood at the center of the narthex about to begin his service.” – an enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave of a church.
  • p. 234: ““Though Avan attacked me from behind and without warning I did swear to support him so I will not allow the words peculation or simony to pass my lips with respect to him.”” – embezzlement; the making of profit out of sacred things.
18 Comments leave one →
  1. Fyrei permalink
    February 17, 2010 1:08 am

    Sounds like a hodgepodge of genres.

  2. February 17, 2010 8:49 am

    So it’s not a retelling of an Austen book, it’s just similar in tone? I did enjoy Naomi Novik’s books, definitely – was thinking of them all through this review! I just got sick of reading about battles in her books, and this doesn’t sound like a terribly battleish book. Perfect!

    • February 17, 2010 11:04 am

      Jenny – Yes, it’s not a retelling of any book in particular, it’s just Austen-esque. Several of the reviews on LibraryThing actually compare it to Trollope more than Austen, but since I’m not well-versed (at all!) in the literature of the period, I can’t comment on that…. Austen is what I’ve read, so Austen is my touchstone for comparison. :)

  3. February 17, 2010 9:36 am

    I have been wanting to read this for so long- it sounds absolutely delightful, and a perfect way to start easing myself into Austen.

    • February 17, 2010 11:08 am

      Omni – Heh, I was thinking of it in the other direction… trying to get Austen-o-philes to read a fantasy novel, but it would work equally well to get fantasy lovers to read Victorian-esque novels. If that’s what you’re after, I’d also strongly recommend Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, and of course Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if you haven’t read it already and really want a Victorian/fantasy hybrid with some bulk.

  4. February 17, 2010 9:46 am

    I’m glad this worked for you, but I’m not sure it’s the book for me.

  5. February 17, 2010 3:51 pm

    Victorian fantasy? Say no more :P

    • February 18, 2010 10:37 am

      Nymeth – Yup, Victorian fantasy. Or maybe Regency fantasy. Fantasy of manners, at any rate. I think you’ll get a kick out of it, regardless.

  6. February 18, 2010 8:18 pm

    I really loved this book and I came into it, same as you, with raised eyebrows. Weird how well it works. I have trouble identifying with reptiles, but with the remove from modern social structures to past social structures already in place, the further skip between species was easy to go with. I thought it was even better than Naomi Novik.

    • February 19, 2010 10:41 am

      Trapunto – One of the things I like best about Novik is the dragon-human interaction, and one of the things I liked best about Tooth and Claw was the dragon society, so I can’t really say that I like one better than the other – they both have their charms.

  7. February 18, 2010 8:47 pm

    I plan to read Jo Walton’s Farthing for Book Chick City’s Thriller and Suspense Challenge this year – it looks like I’ll need to add this book of hers to my to-read list as well. Good review!

    • February 19, 2010 10:42 am

      Christy – For sure! After reading this, I went looking for her other books, and they seem to be over a pretty wide range of genres and topics. I mooched the first book of her Arthurian series; I hope it gets here soon!

  8. February 20, 2010 12:10 pm

    If this weren’t already on my wishlist, it would be now. I’ve really enjoyed Jo Walton’s posts on, and every review I’ve come across has only increased my desire to read her fiction.

    • February 23, 2010 8:47 am

      Memory – I haven’t read any of her stuff on Tor, I don’t think… any favorites to point me to?

  9. March 5, 2010 5:26 pm

    So…all the characters are dragons?! lol I did sign up for a Victorian reading challenge this year…I might have to read this just out of curiousity. Especially since it’s not actually an Austen retelling. (I’m a leetle bit protective of her.)


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