Monday, June 18, 2012

Musings: Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw
I recently came to the sad conclusion that I have no love for Victorian writers.  They are moralistic, long-winded, class-conscious and often sexist.

But after reading Tooth & Claw, by Jo Walton, I realize that my problem with Victorian novels is that they are not written from the point of view of dragons.  As a rule of thumb, dragons make everything better, but they infinitely improve a Victorian novel.

I first encountered Jo Walton's supreme awesomeness in Among Others, where she casually referenced about 500 science fiction novels to help tell her coming-of-age story of a girl from Wales.  Just as Walton played with the tropes of magical realism in that book, here she plays with the traditional Regency and Victorian comedy of manners novels of old.  But she doesn't do this in a Pride & Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter way.  Walton doesn't infuse the Victorian novel by adding fantasy to an already existing novel.  Rather, she refreshes it in a way that yes, involves dragons (for which we are all grateful), but also brings attention to the real issues and difficulties faced by individuals of the time by alluding to them through the fantastical world she's created.

Tooth & Claw is about the Agornin family.  The family patriarch passes away early in the story, and this changes the lives of all his children.  His wealthy and powerful son-in-law takes a larger share of the inheritance than he needs or deserves, which bothers all the Agornin siblings.  His elder son faces a crisis of faith that he cannot share with anyone else in his family for fear of being thrown out of the Church.  His younger son takes his brother-in-law to court to sue for his rightful inheritance.  And his two unmarried daughters, without a great dowry between them, must be separated and depend on the kindness and generosity of their siblings to keep them.

Tooth and Claw
Walton says in the preface to this book that "...a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong.  People aren't like that.  Women, especially, aren't like that.  This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology."  How does she do that?  Well, maiden dragons in this novel have golden scales; once they have been in close, unchaperoned proximity with a male dragon, they turn pink.  This happens whether the advances were welcome or not, and this biological phenomenon has great repercussions for two of the women in this novel.  Additionally, the wealthier dragons are bigger, faster, and stronger than the rest.  They can not only defeat smaller dragons in battle, but can eat weakling dragons that live on their lands.  This results in a social hierarchy that closely resembles that of 19th century Britain and results in keeping the lower orders firmly down.

I loved a lot about this book, but I was mostly fascinated by Walton's endeavors to make Victorian mores biological facts.  It is so striking to see the effects of a woman who really does wear a scarlet letter for everyone else to see, and makes it easier for modern readers to understand just how unalterable life was for "fallen" women of the era.  I also enjoyed the tantalizing glimpses into the history, political structure, religion and social hierarchy of the dragon world.  But those also frustrated me.  There was much I did not quite understand about this world, and I wanted more.  I hope Walton decides to make this a series of books an not a stand-alone.

As for the characters, I enjoyed them, too, but more as symbols than as characters.  There are a lot of dragons populating this book, and as it's only about 250 pages long, that means none of them gets much time in the spotlight.  While the two sisters, Selendra and Haner, get most of the attention, Walton also shares the thoughts and motivations of other protagonists in the book.  This results in so many nuances over a wide spectrum, ranging from poor tenant farmer to wealthy dowager, from bound servant to fallen woman.  While I am glad to have had such a diverse spectrum of characters, I wish that I could have gotten to know all of them and their stories better than I did.  There is so much in this novel that could have been explored in depth and detail.

But there are not many books that earn the complaint of, "I wish it had been longer."  Tooth & Claw was a fascinating look at Victorian culture through a creative and unexpected lens.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading much more from Walton in the future.

22 comments:

  1. Victorian novels are kind of my jam, but after taking a Dickens course, I did go kind of crazy and read some postmodernism because I needed something where there WERE NO RULES. Also where women could have personalities.

    "I realize that my problem with Victorian novels is that they are not written from the point of view of dragons." Nice. That being said, I do not understand the dragon thing. I couldn't get through Eragon or whatever, and I just don't get books with dragons as the main characters. BUT I respect that some people totes do. ;)

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    1. Well, I couldn't get through Eragon, either, so I don't think that's the end all and be all of dragon books :-) I think my love of the species-that-does-not-exist began with Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons book. But I'm not OBSESSED with them, really- I just think Walton used them to really amazing effect here, while maintaining the Victorian status quo. So you might enjoy this one!

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  2. Dragons make everything better!

    I really need to read some Jo Walton. I think we would get along very nicely.

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    1. I have a feeling you two would get along swimmingly, too :-)

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  3. The interesting thing, as you so adroitly point out, is not that they're dragons, but that they have a biological imperative to obey the rules of Victorian society. I also loved the picture she paints of the "soiled dove" who is not as traditionally defenseless as that traditional image leads one to think!

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    1. Yes, exactly! That really was the most interesting part of it all. The characters weren't amazing, but the situations they were forced into and how they reacted to them based on their biology was fantastic.

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  4. I actually don't love dragons inherently, but this is one of my favorite books. I also love Naomi Novik's Temeraire books. Other than these, I can take dragons or leave them--mostly leave them.

    I'm so glad you loved it! I think I need to buy a copy so I can reread it.

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    1. I started the Novik series but really lost steam with the one set in China- just took me ages to get through! I should try again....

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  5. Intriguing. I'm not usually a fan of victorian literature either, but I can get behind a fun exploration like this. Hadn't ever heard of it before.

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    1. Yes, it's very inventive and has a real elegance of execution that I think you, as a student of English, would really enjoy :-)

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  6. I've heard great things about Among Others and look forward to eventually reading it myself I have to admit that I don't read many dragon books anymore (I think Stephen Deas's The Memory of Flame series are the only ones) but this one sounds worth checking out. Definitely sounds unique.

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    1. Yes, it's not so much a dragon book in the way that people ride dragons or defeat them in war- it's about dragons as they interact with each other, which is very interesting.

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  7. Lol :) I guess Victorian books must have dragons then

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    1. It's true! Good rule of thumb :-)

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  8. I've been meaning to read this since I read Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope and heard that this book was inspired by it. I do often enjoy Victorian novels but a Victorian novel with dragons sounds much more fun!

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    1. Yes, it is based on Framley Parsonage! I think comparing the two would be very interesting, so would love to see what you think of it and how she plays with the tropes of that novel. Also, why did she choose THAT novel in particular?

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  9. This is still the only Jo Walton book that I have read, but I have such fond memories of the book! I definitely intend to read more by her in due course!

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    1. I recommend Among Others :-) And I have plans to read Farthing soon, too!

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  10. yay, you loved it! The way she made Victorian mores literal was so brilliant. I can't wait to read the Small Change books with you and Kelly. Also, I read Framley Parsonage last year because of this novel and it was so interesting to see what Walton had done with Trollope's basic plot.

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    1. I am excited to read the Small Change series, too- should be really interesting! I think I'll avoid Framley Parsonage, though :-)

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  11. What a fascinating book and what a fascinating, insightful review. Must go look for it.

    What is the Small Change series you are reading.

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  12. I seem to collect Jo Walton books and then not actually read her... I still have only read Among Others! And that was a later addition to my TBR pile. I had this and a couple others way before that... I must get around to more from her!

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