Tooth and Claw
by Jo Walton
Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Cover Artist: Howard Grossman
Review by Sam Lubell
Orb Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319517
Date: 06 January 2009 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Tooth and Claw is the novel Jane Austen would have written if her 19th century Europe had been populated by intelligent, cannibalistic dragons.
The book is very much a 19th century novel with characters concerned about finding a proper marriage (to someone of equivalent or higher station), maintaining family honor, dealing with servants, and even discovering a surprise heir. There are no wars or battles (well, one duel) and much of the action takes place as characters talk to each other. And yet, this is not a novel about humans in dragon costumes. Walton has put considerable thought into a creating a society of civilized dragons. For example, dragon servants have their wings bound (as do dragon parsons). Weak dragons are eaten by the strong (dragon flesh has strengthening/healing powers) and dragon landowners eat the young of their tenants when they believe them not fit to survive. And mating rituals are complicated by a color change in a female dragon when a male gets too close.
The book opens with the classic death of the family patriarch. Since one son, Penn, is a parson and Avan, a low-level government official, is not yet capable of defending the family lands, the estate is given over to a well-off brother-in-law, Daverak, who is married to Berend. Penn and Daverak each take in one of the two unmarried daughters, Haner and Selendra. But when the father dies, Daverak takes more than his fair share of the body to consume, leading Avan to organize a lawsuit against him. Then when another parson seeks to marry Selendra, he approaches her too closely, trigging the pink blush change that usually signifies marriage in a maiden dragon. Fortunately, a servant brews herbs to restore her maiden gold color, but at the possible risk of rendering her unable to blush when she encounters her true love.
Domestic problems comprise much of the novel. Since there is not enough money for both unwed sisters to have a proper dowry, they agree that the first to wed will get it all in return for making a home for the other. Selendra begins to form a relationship with Sher, a friend of her pastor brother (although his mother opposes the match because his family is of higher station). But she is unable to turn pink, even when the two grow close. Avan has a relationship with his clerk, who has her own tragic past preventing marriage. Daverak grows colder to the family as a result of the lawsuit, pressuring his wife and the sister who lives with them to refuse to participate. The climax of the book is the trial, which, these being dragons, turns into a duel.
One could argue that the book depends a little too heavily on coincidence with Salendra and Sher discovering a treasure that solves the problem of insufficient funds for dowries. And a timely reconciliation and death near the end of the book (to say more would be a spoiler) resolves another set of relationship problems. Of course, real 19th century novels also had their fair share of coincidences as anyone who read Oliver Twist will remember.
Characterization is very strong. Although there are five siblings plus various husbands and significant others, Walton keeps them all distinct in the reader's mind (well, maybe not Berend who is overshadowed by her husband). While there are certainly some soap opera qualities, the book is very readable page-turner. Obviously, this is not a book for those who want action and adventure, grand-scale magic, and quests to save the kingdom. But readers who enjoy Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, who can get caught up in a chaste romance or the domestic doings of a family will find this an interesting read. Highly recommended.