Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

Tor, 2003, 292 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34909-4

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and that fact may have worked to my advantage as I made my way through Jo Walton’s short-but-rich Tooth and Claw. Perhaps the most succinct description one could make of the book would be “Austen with dragons” and it would even be exact: A comedy of manners set in a world peopled with wings-and-fire dragons, Tooth and Claw re-imagines the rigidly-defined social roles of Victorian romances as being motivated by the biological imperatives of dragonkind.

As a book, it’s definitely a one-in-a-kind curiosity. But don’t think that the interest stops with the premise: Walton is able to do more than paint a pretty world, and so it doesn’t take a lot of time for the dragons, —scales, snouts and all— to grow on us as characters every bit as enjoyable as anything else in the Romantic canon.

The plot is set in motion by the peaceful death of a family patriarch. His corpse has barely any time to cool down that it’s already being torn apart –literally. One thing leads to another and before long the whole inheritance issue is causing its share of troubles between the rest of the family, and those surrounding them.

Despite the scaly eight-foot-tall characters, readers will immediately feel an atmosphere of comfortable reading pleasure. Walton deliberately sets her story in a universe not unlike the English Regency era, alternating between rich country estates and the griminess of a city not called London… Even the dullest fantasy/romance readers like myself will be off and running within a few pages.

Don’t be fooled by the book’s relatively short page count: The story is so gripping that you’ll slow down to read every sentence in full, savouring how Walton is able to build a fabulous novel of character on top of a fantastic premise.

What’s particularly noteworthy for a Science Fiction geek like myself is the way dragons are here approached almost as an exercise in alien world-building. Walton makes it seems as if the most outlandish aspects of her pseudo-romantic society logically derive from biological factors. I knew the novel was going to work for me when Walton explained the irreversible “blushing” effect and made it an integral part of dragon courtship: clever, clever stuff.

Fans of Jane Austen’s work will be bowled over by the way Walton pays careful homage to the conventions of the genre, through inheritances, disdain of the church, reversal of fortunes, hard-working heroes and the reason for it all, big romantic love. There’s no shame in loving a book like this one when it’s so well done.

Tooth and Claw is so surely manned, in fact, that it’s obvious midway through the book that this will end well not just for the characters, but for us as readers. Only a few misstep (the fortuitous arrival of a sizable fortune; too-similar names) mar the overall portrait, but they’re nowhere near denting the considerable reading pleasure offered by the book. An awe-inspiring hybrid between a literary joke and a wintertime-fireside comfort, Tooth and Claw is well worth a look, even for those who think they’ve got no time for romance or fantasy.

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