Teresa asked me to read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw — essentially a Victorian novel in which all the characters are dragons — in this year’s book swap, after she read it herself in 2013. Her review of it sums it up so perfectly that I feel odd doing any sort of summary: go and read it, and come back for a few of my thoughts.
Walton mentions in her introduction that the book leans heavily on Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. Certainly, with both books entangled in several proposals, confessions, and questions of class, gender, and gentility, the comparison is easy to make: Trollope understood the dragons of his own society rather well, and so does Walton. Whether it’s arguing over an inheritance or arguing over who gets to eat the largest share of the dead father’s body, Victorian social mores are on display.
One example of the way Walton makes this work is with the clever device of virgin dragons’ scales coloring. While an attractive maiden dragon’s scales are a burnished gold, physical proximity of a suitor turns her scales a blushing bridal pink. A problem arises if an unwanted suitor, in an accidentally unchaperoned situation, barges into a maiden’s personal space and causes her to blush unwillingly (a rather mild metaphor for rape or other dishonor; a scarlet mark that cannot be hidden). This very misfortune befalls Penn’s sister Selendra. The family at first insists on a marriage to the buffoonish Blessed Frelt. A potion provided by a loyal servant restores Selendra’s maidenly coloration, but it is feared that she may never again be able to blush naturally. This becomes a pressing issue when Selendra is wooed by the boyishly irresponsible Sher, who, of course, stands to gain a considerable inheritance once he settles down. If Selandra can no longer blush, she cannot marry. Making the actions of the characters part of their biology, not part of their morality, makes the dilemmas much plainer.
This book is a delightful read. Walton’s world-building is clever — so clever, indeed, that I didn’t make some connections until the very end of the book. (How did I not understand what the Yarge were? Was I just not paying attention?) The religion, the infrastructure, the class structure, the law — all are presented as if to a dragonish audience, so we never get too much, and never quite enough. I still think the Small Change trilogy is the best thing I’ve read by Walton, but this was great entertainment. Book Swap wins again!