Book Review: Tooth and Claw Tears Into Social Conventions

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Some spoilers.

I first read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw for a graduate class in children’s literature entitled Men, Women, and Dragons: Gender and Identity in Fantasy Literature.  I raved about it then to anyone who would listen, including the professor’s wife.  This January I reread it I’m pretty sure for at least the second time.  It has safely wedged itself in among some of my favorite books.  It won’t ever offer me the thrill of Riordan’s books nor the fandom and life experiences of Rowling’s, but it might find very good company among Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series.

Jane Yolen describes Tooth and Claw as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, though I have been corrected to think of it as Trollope with dragons (in her author’s note Walton cites Framley Parsonage) and have, since being corrected, longed to settle down with an inexpensive and not too lengthy book of Trollope’s but have yet to have the pleasure.

So I can’t compare Tooth and Claw to Trollope, but I can compare it to Pride and Prejudice and odds are that more of you will understand that comparison better anyway, Austen being more often assigned and having been made into more mainstream movies than Trollope.  Tooth and Claw holds all of the romance of an Austen novel with quirky heroines who aim to find themselves a comfortable home with a man whom they love and who loves them back and run into difficulty because of their social statuses and the finicky framework of their society.  The heroines find heroes of a higher social class and excellent character.  They are exposed along the way to men of less excellent character, even an annoying parson very like Mr. Collins.  Like Austen, the story explores gender inequality, social convention and faux pas, and the differences between the upper echelons and the country estates and parsonages.  Where the story strays from Austen is in the exploration of the fixture of servitude and classism within the society, the theater of the court system, the fallibility of a church, and race relations, and in the inherent violence of dragons.  Victorian-like rules rein in the violence and supposedly give pomp and ritual to it, but Austen explored very few duels, murders, or ritual cannibalism and euthanasia.

The story ends “And there […] we shall leave them to take refuge in the comfort of gentle hypocrisy” (292).  [SPOILER] It ends with all who deserve to getting a happier ending than they could have foretold and the most villainous dragon being defeated. [END SPOILER]  It was exactly the type of novel I needed to restore me when my once romantic silliness is slipping towards cynicism (it may not have been able to rescue me entirely from reality, but it made a good case for chivalry and the existence true love and companionship).

The well-written and –composed book plays host to a complex world of politics, religion, and social conventions both mirroring and deviating from our own and accounting for the differing biologies of men and dragons (which Walton expands by creating a biological meaning to the coloration of dragon scales).  It is not a fast-paced adventure, and if the reader is seeking such, she might seek elsewhere, but it is does not read at a snail’s pace to me, the text being clipped enough and enough adventures puncturing through the tête-à-têtes to keep the story rolling pleasantly at least at the pace of Pride and Prejudice if not faster.

*****

Walton, Jo.  Tooth and Claw.  New York: Tor, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Jo Walton or Tor Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

The latest editions of the book are published by Orb Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

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