HC SVNT DRACONES!
SPQD thrown down by
I don't know a lot about Victorian Romance as a genre. I would go as far as to say I don't know anything. I mean, I have assumptions & notions about the conventions & tropes of the genre, but those are all gleaned from second-hand sources. I wasn't an English major in college, so I missed a great deal of the canon-- the Brontës are a big deal, right? Thackery? I've read some Dickens, but the piece of Victorian literature I have the most connection to is Darwin's On the Origin of Species. At some point, it becomes Gothic literature, & I'm familiar with a lot of that...oh but look, I'm falling off point. What I'm trying to say is this: Tooth & Claw is a Victorian Romance with dragons instead of people. If I was more familiar with Victorian Romance, I probably would have liked it much better; as it is I liked it fine. I feel like, for me, it should be been a little bit less anthropomorphic. I liked the insights into dragon society, but I thought that hats, carriages & farming was just a bridge too far. Or rather, if not too far, then just a bridge in the wrong direction. I get that it allowed a greater deal of direct social satire, but I think the same could have been accomplished, a bit less heavy-handedly. Because I'm not well acquainted with these sorts of books, the tension was, if anything, too effective. It was affective; it stressed me out! Things are bad, things are bleak, obstacles mount...until finally in the eleventh hour everything works out fine. As you expect it will, but still. I think I started grinding my teeth!
That being said, two things about this novel were fantastic. First-- the acknowledgement of common sense on the behalf of the characters. This is a pet peeve of mine that Tooth & Claw smartly avoids-- when authors make a clumsy pass at dramatic irony by having the characters do something that we the audience know is the wrong thing to do. You know, everyone yelling at the Final Girl of a horror flick not to go into that room, or to look behind her, or whatnot. Jo Walton has a few moments where that tension could develop-- where the reader's pessimistic speculations are about to start-- that she nicely undercuts, subverting your unfortunate expectations. You know, the female dragon in a tenuous social position is going to send a letter with sensitive information in it, & sets it with the mail to be taken to the post office...you start thinking, "oh, that bad dragon is going to read that letttttter..." but then the dragoness thinks better of it & decides to take it & post it herself, since she doesn't want the antagonist to snoop & find it. Phew. Or when there are plot twists that seem obvious-- stressful misfortune-- & the characters think of it themselves, too. "What if I was forced to marry him! That would be awful-- but patently absurd."
The other thing that stands out is the biology of the dragons. No, wait-- the ecology of the dragons. No, I guess I mean the culture of the dragons? No, the uh, thaumaturgy of the dragons? I don't know what term to use. The mechanics of the dragons on a biological level & how that informs them socially. The evolutionary psychology of the beasts, so to speak. In particular, I find the cannibalism very interesting. Dragons care about gold, title & they care about meat-- dragons grow by eating the flesh of other dragons. Dragonets are wingless wyrms, & then as they grow-- if they grow-- they gain flight, & eventually, possibly they gain fire. The only way to grow-- & size does matter-- is by eating other dragons. Per the Church, nobles are to cull the population-- dragonets that are weak are eaten, to the benefit of the aristocracy. When a dragon dies, his flesh is a major component of his inheritance-- in fact, the plot of Tooth & Claw is based around a legal dispute regarding the consumption of a venerable elder. Clergy get the eyes of the dead dragon they minister to. When dragons go to war, the bodies of any casualty are divided amongst his unit, & finally, the bodies of executed criminals are used to settle legal disputes over the division of dragonflesh. That right there is brilliant stuff; I'm strongly tempted to run a Dungeons & Dragons game where everyone plays a dragon & scrambles for rank.