Review: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

‘I don’t think you realize how different it is for me than for you. You can make your way by your own wits and claws, while I must always be dependent on some male to protect me. Wits I may have, but claws I am without, and while hands are useful for writing and fine work they are no use in a battle.’

****Trigger warnings for death of a parent, mentions of rape and sexual abuse, child abandonment, cannibalism (dragons eating dragons), estrangement and death of an infant****

So over this year, I’ve been taking note of my reading tastes and particular trends I go through. I’m very much a mood reader at heart but I do know I go through certain sub genres in cycles. Tooth and Claw I picked up when I realised fantasy of manners was one I had been enjoying and glad to say I really enjoyed this one too.

A tale of love, money and family conflict – and everyone in the tale is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

A family of dragons gathers on the occasion of the death of their father, the elder Bon Agornin. As is custom, they must eat the body. But even as Bon’s last remains are polished off, his sons and daughters must all jostle for a position in the new hierarchy. While the youngest son seeks greedy remuneration through the courts of law, the eldest son – a dragon of the cloth – agonises over his father’s deathbed confession. While one daughter is caught between loyalty to her family by blood and her family by marriage, another daughter follows her heart – only to discover the great cost of true love…

Here is a Victorian story of political intrigue, family ties and political intrigue, set in a world of dragons – a world, quite literally, red in tooth and claw. Full of fiery wit, this is a novel unlike any other.

Tooth and Claw has been on my radar for a while and so has the author as a result, Jo Walton. I not only love these kind of fantasy stories but I have such a hankering for more dragon stories as well. Granted I have a lot of them unread on my shelves but I picked this up for a particular mood and I really enjoyed the intricate, detailed stories of dragon siblings trying to handle both their fathers life and the society they live in.

We start the story at an ending, the death of Bon Agornin. His son, Penn (or the Blessed Penn), awaiting his final moments. Dragon society is not unlike that of a Victorian English one, there are classes, titles and a very set structure for what is considered proper. Penn himself is titled ‘the Blessed Penn Agornin’ due to him being a Parson. There is also his eldest sister, Berend, a lady now having married another dragon noble named Daverak (the Illustrious Daverak). The other members of the family include Avan, the youngest boy and a law clerk, and the youngest sisters, Haner and Selendra. Sisters that have never been parted and now will be so they can be raised in a way fitting to their station.

Two things that I loved about this story was the set up of the world and the side characters. The world itself isn’t too unlike that of a Victorian romance. There is class inequalities, savage social pressures, expectations of virtue in women. The difference being that dragons are expected to literally eat each other in order to grow larger and be stronger. For men, to gain extra length and become larger. For women, to eat the flesh to carry more clutches or feed to their current dragontets (children) so they may thrive. I loved this detail. It gave the story this unique, grisly feature that just amplified the injustice that can go among people in society.

I don’t want to delve too much into specific plot lines about each family member since that is essentially the plot but Walton weaves it impeccably. This family are hard not to become invested in, the secrets, the machinations each is working in their own day to day is very engrossing. There isn’t an attempt to judge anyone based on their decisions as well, the characters owning their poor and good decisions alike. But there is an interesting aspect that Walton touched on herself in an article for Tor.com that really made me think on the more brutal aspects in the story;

So I took this one idea, that Victorians are monsters, but monsters are people, and if you translated Trollope’s dragons into a world where they make sense as people, dragon-people, then that would reflect back interestingly in both directions.

Jo Walton; ‘Dragons of the Prime: Jo Walton on Writing Tooth and Claw’ for Tor.com, May 2020

Now granted I think anything is more interesting with dragons and they always make everything better but I can’t help but commend how clever the choice is with that in mind. I do encourage checking out the article linked above.

I mentioned the side characters being impressive and that’s not a slight on the main cast. The Agornin clan are a multifacted, well written bunch. But that same development is also applied to the other characters as well. The main standouts for me was Felin and Sebeth. Felin is Penn’s wife and grew up as an adopted daughter under the Exalt Benandi, an respected, lady noble. Felin I love because of one thing, she is never not her honest, true self. She is loyal to her husband, the Exalt and her children but she never once backs down for the sake of it. At one point, the Exalt demmands something of her and Felin is literally like ‘I’m stressed. I can’t control people. Sorry but nope.’ I would recommend reading for her.

Sebeth is a little more tragic. Her relationship with Avan, hidden away in the city, is one of low key scandal but equality. A survivor of sexual and physical abuse, abandoned by her family to raiders, she works as Avan’s assistant and lives with him as his lover and tenant. I loved their dynamic to be honest. Avan knows and understands Sebeth may have other lovers besides him or keeps a lot to herself but doesn’t demand any details or restrict her in any way. Supporting her if she tells him herself. Her story is resolved absolutely gloriously in the end but I just wanted to highlight a romance that finally felt right to me.

My only mild, small issue was the books pacing. In the middle it does get a little messy but does resolve in the end. The overall plot centering on the Agornin dragons is wrapped up expertly by the books end and honestly, as much as I love standalones like this one, I’d love to know how the characters are doing right now. Highly recommend reading this of if you like dragons, Pride and Prejudice or Sorcerer to the Crown. Thanks for checking in guys! Happy reading!

★★★★/5

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