New Books: Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw
By Jo Walton

Here’s the situation: A wealthy, self-made man dies, leaving his fortune to his surviving children: a son, who has followed a successful career in the church; a daughter, who has made a brilliant marriage to a wealthy husband with a title; and three younger children, a son and two daughters, who are just beginning to make their way in the world. The patriarch’s will specifies that the bulk of his inheritance should go to these younger children, but the older daughter’s husband disagrees with this interpretation of the will and immediately claims a substantial chunk of the inheritance for his own family. In the aftermath of their father’s death, the three younger children must forge their own path: one daughter going to live with her parson brother, where she falls in love with a dashing nobleman; another daughter making her home with her wealthy older sister, where she begins to question the ethics of keeping servants; and the youngest son back to the city, where he files a suit against his inheritance-stealing brother-in-law, causing much family drama. It sounds like any Victorian novel, right? Until you know that the main characters are all dragons.

Suzanne and I read Tooth and Claw for the podcast (you can listen to the episode in which we discuss it here, if you’re interested), but I thought it was such a delightful romp of a book that I wanted to recommend it here, too.  Really, this book is just so much fun. Walton has the Victorian voice down pat, from the complicated social structure to the convoluted legal system, and she adds some lovely dragon-ish interpretations of Victorian life—for instance, unmarried female dragons undergo obvious physical change when they’re physically or emotionally close to male dragons, and once a dragon has turned pink, she must marry or live in disgrace. Or consider survival of the fittest—an idea much talked about in Victorian circles. Walton carries it to its most extreme conclusion as wealthy landowner dragons gobble up the less thriving offspring of their dragon tenants. (Dragons in Walton’s world get extra power and strength from consuming dragon flesh.)

This is a high school-level book in much the same way Trollope is a high school-level book—there are lots of characters to keep up with and some complicated situations, but if your reader is ready for Jane Austen, she’s probably ready for Tooth and Claw, too. I think this dragon comedy of manners would be a great fall readaloud.