Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In this inventive fantasy that re-imagines the Victorian era, members of a genteel family struggle to make their way in the world after the death of their father - and they happen to be dragons.
A short pitch for this book could be Jane Austen with dragons. If that isn't a great hook, I don't know what is! The cast of characters is a respectable dragon family whose patriarch has died, scattering his heirs into the uniquely dangerous world to make their fortunes. Each character seems to have an analog in the Austen universe: for example, the clergyman Blessed Frelt is both Mr. Collins and Mr. Elliot.
It's fascinating to see how Walton translates Victorian ideas about human nature into dragon society: female dragons are much smaller than males, and lack claws or fire (dragons vary wildly in size, ranging from servants who remain seven feet in adulthood to the giant nobles who achieve seventy feet or more). Females change color when they bond with a mate, and a female alone in the world is in real danger of being "pressed" (something much like rape) or simply killed and eaten. Yes, eaten. That brings us to a central point in this world: dragons eat their dead, for some very good reasons. It's an idea Walton uses to full potential, and as strange as it is to think of Dragon Mr. Darcy eating his dear dead dad, it works. Dragon society is genteel on the surface, but beneath every interaction lurks the reality that these are large carnivores, ready to fight tooth and claw to improve their social standing.
The characters are interesting, but some of the love stories between dragon couples lacked zest. I think it's because Walton doesn't have the knack for dialog that you see in the classic British authors - Dickens and Austen in particular. (It's unfair to make the comparison, but impossible not to.) Still, the concept and execution are so charming I'm happy to overlook this quibble. In fact, I want Jo Walton to write generations of dragon stories, progressing through every era of human civilization. Dragon Greatest Generation! Dragon hippies! Dragon yuppies! (A dragon Gordon Gecko would be fantastic: Greed...is good.) There are so many interesting directions this universe could take, and the way Walton uses her premise to reexamine human society is exactly what good fantasy should do.
The obvious ideal readers of this book are Jane Austen/fantasy lovers, so brush up on your Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility before (or after) Tooth and Claw. I would also suggest another alternate-history fantasy series, one I love: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (the first in the Temeraire books). Think Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander - with dragons, naturally. I'm pretty sure everything's better with dragons.