Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton: Pride and Prejudice and Dragons
One of the things I’m self-conscious about as a reader is a fact that I’ve read very few of the classics of the English canon — Dickens, Hardy, Austen, etc. Hell, I still haven’t read much of the work considered to be classic to SF, which as a genre is generally much younger than most of the work commonly considered to be part of the “official” canon. My reading history contains very little in the way of Asimov, Clarke, Butler, Heinlein, or Russ, for example.
This is why I’ve realized that Jo Walton is so amazing — she herself is such an avid reader that she’s helped me fill in a lot of the holes in my reading through her second-hand observation and reconstructions. In What Makes This Book So Great, she talks about how she’s a devoted reader of Anthony Trollope, and how she based much of the plot of Tooth and Claw on his book Framley Parsonage.
Tooth and Claw takes all the tropes of regency and Victorian-era fiction — courtship, dowries, parsons and parsonages, servants, inheritances, lawsuits, deathbed confessions, snooty old ladies concerned about their rank in the class system — and sets them in a world where all the main characters are dragons. The Dignified Bon Agornin, a dragon nearly 70 feet in length is on his deathbed, and his children have gathered at the family estate to see to their inheritance and the disposal of his remains.
The twist is that in this world, dragons dispose of remains by eating them. Dragon cannibalism is an accepted part of life, and eating dragonflesh, is, in fact, the primary way which dragons increase in size, strength, and length — and accordingly, their prestige and social status. When Bon’s greedy son-in-law, Daverak, demands more than his fair share of Bon’s body, it sets off a crisis.
This situation affects each of Bon’s five children in different ways: Penn, a parson, agreed to allow Bon to confess his sins on his deathbed, which is an act of heresy according to the strictures of dragon religion. Berend, who was lucky enough to get married with a healthy dowry a few years before, is caught in the middle between her husband and her family. Haner and Selendra are two eligible young women, and Bon’s death means both that they’ll be separated into different households and that their dowries will be too paltry to attract mates of the right standing. Finally, Avan, an up-and-coming civil servant, decides that the only way to rectify this injustice is to take Daverak to court.
This, of course, ratchets up the tension for all involved, as the remaining dowries for Haner and Selendra, as well as Penn’s future career within the church, are on the line.
As someone who hasn’t read much in the way of Trollope or Jane Austen, the chief pleasure of Tooth and Claw lies in understanding the tropes and rules of Victorian-era fiction in a new light. In fact, Walton says that taking the social mores of humans of that era and turning them into biological rules of dragonkind was one of her biggest motivations in writing the book.
For example: when a female dragon is unmarried her scales are a bright golden colour, but they turn pink to indicate sexual or romantic interest in a male dragon. However, the colour change isn’t a conscious expression of interest so much as a biological response like estrus. Thus, a male can in effect “claim” a female as his mate if he manages to get close enough to her to make her colour change, even if she doesn’t consent to his proximity. (This is exactly what happens to Selendra, and her attempts to find a solution to this problem while also rebuffing the advances of certain other dragons becomes a major plot point.)
Issues of gender aside, Tooth and Claw also contains several commentaries on class. Dragons can grow in size only if they eat the flesh of other dragons. Luckily, if you’re a member of the nobility with a great estate to your name, you can just pick off the weak dragons on your property, or the runts of a new clutch, or your servants. But if you’re poor? You’re SOL, friend. Seeing how Daverak takes advantage of his privilege as lord of his estate makes the young Haner begin to question her own values as one raised among the gentry, and one of the book’s subplots involves her becoming an abolitionist.
That said, it’s deeply weird for me to feel that the actions of dragons in this world make more internal sense than the actions of humans do in the novels that Tooth and Claw uses as its source material. A young woman may reject the proposal of an eligible suitor whether she is a dragon or not, but the fact that such concerns have a biological basis in Tooth and Claw rather than the social basis of Trollope’s or Austen’s books somehow made the whole thing easier for me to swallow. A lot of my refusal to read the source books of the era stems from my frustration that god, this whole thing would be solved if you people just talked to each other, dammit! The frustration doesn’t show up as much if the characters are dragons.
Overall, Tooth and Claw is fun, compelling, and deeply weird, with a tightly interlocking plot where the actions of one character result in multiple tiny dominoes falling elsewhere. And, just like the book’s source material, everything turns out right in the end, with everyone getting married, getting rich, or getting their just desserts as necessary.