Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Review: Tooth and Claw

I just finished my second novel by Jo Walton. It was an interesting tale, entitled Tooth and Claw. It's a novel based in part on Victorian England, with the gimmick of all the characters being dragons.

As a concept, it's a great thing to go with. I love my dragons.

Of course, I usually associate dragons with high adventure, fantastical elements of good versus evil, with massive battles between weaker creatures and those magnificent lizards. And if that's what you're expecting here, then you'll be highly disappointed. Anyways, the dust jacket, provided this as way of a blurb:

Now Walton returns with a very different kind of fantasy story: the tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, of a son who goes to law for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father's deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.

Except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here is a world of politics and train stations, of churchmen and family retainers, of courtship and country houses... in which, on the death of an elder, family members gather toe at the body of the deceased. In which society's high-and-mighty members avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing strong thereby.
The story itself revolves around the Agornin siblings (two brothers and three sisters) and is basically a tale, similar in nature to Little Women revolving around them. It's a story of their relationships with one another, and their loves and battles, and by battles I'm not necessarily talking the big, explosive kind that you usually see in fantasy stories revolving around dragons. For example, one of the brothers is a clerk, and is offered a bribe. What he decides there is a battle. One fought entirely within the mind, but a battle nonetheless.

Frankly, you could have pulled out the dragon aspects, and dropped in humans or cats or pretty much anything, and the story would have worked perfectly well.

Like I said, if you're expecting high adventure or grand fantasy you'll be sorely disappointed.

The plot is actually just a series of plots tied together by the family. The question is, whether it works for a story about dragons or not. Initially, I wanted to say no. I wanted to cling to my concept of what a story about dragons should be, and write a horrid review, especially when I got to this point. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that would be doing quite a disservice to the story.

The story works. Like I said earlier, it doesn't matter that they're dragons. That fact is incidental to the story. The story works because we, as human readers, can understand the motivations of the characters. Love. Pain. Anger. Vengeance. Forgiveness. Universal concepts which make stories that work. Mrs. Walton woved them into a single cohesive story line quite beautifully here.

Settings are plentiful and well written. You get a feel for the biting cold of the winters and the uneasy desperation of the city. Mrs. Walton here provides us a series of descriptions that are exact enough to visualize yet spare enough not to bog you down in narrative.

The theme is spelled out in detail above. It's not high fantasy. It's not a story about good and evil locked in battle. It's a story about family. And all the messy emotions and situations that go along with that.

The mechanics of the story were done well. I can't remember a single typo or grammatical error (always a blessing after reading some of the Star Wars: NJO stuff). I really have no complaints in this regard. Additionally, there is none of the POV shifts which made Pan's Rebirth so hard to follow.

In the end, this story is not what I was expecting. I was hoping for something closer to the Dragonriders of Pern, you know, high adventure, fantasy, but what I got was Little Women with dragons. Now, don't get me wrong-the story is a great story, just not something that I would normally read. Mechanics, characters, settings, plot, in every regard this novel works. Likewise, there are things I would like to see answered as far as the story goes. Things such as what exactly are the Yarge? I assumed they're humans, but I don't think the novel ever comes right out and says so. I would also like to read a story about the Conquest or when the Dragons rebelled against the Yarge. Those are stories that I would like to read. They have the potential for that high adventure in fantasy. Yet that is just my aimless ramblings from the part of me that wants all my questions answered, not an issue with the novel itself.

Tooth and Claw gets a 3.5 out of 4.


Jenny Davidson said...

Just came here via a search for reviews of Jo Walton, who I've been reading & enjoying also. I feel sure you must have read these already, but if not you must: Naomi Novik's Temeraire books! They really are wonderfully in the spirit of Anne McCaffrey's books, they have my highest recommendation...

Stephen Wrighton said...

[b]Jenny:[/b] I think I've seen the Temeraire books in the past (if memory serves they showed up in the bookstores last year) but haven't had the chance to pick them up yet.

And with a recommendation like that, I'll try to grab one from the library or the used book store sometime in the next week.

Thanks for stopping by!

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