Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tooth and Claw

Jo Walton's novel Tooth and Claw is, she says in the prologue, "the result of wondering what a world would be like...if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology." Dragon biology, that is.

Unlike Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels, which are concerned with the Napoleonic wars, Tooth and Claw "owes a lot," Walton says, to Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage. So it's a drawing room novel, commencing with the death of the patriarch and following the fortunes of his children, including two young, unmarried daughters. It is done without winking or allegory (Walton discusses the attempts of her translators to insist on allegorical meaning in her article about reading protocols for science fiction and fantasy).

The conventions are fun because they're so literal--when a young female dragon gets engaged or becomes a "soiled dove," she turns pink to show it. Class struggle involves not only having your wings bound so you can't fly, but includes the possibility of being eaten. Male dragons have more power because they have claws and, possibly, fire.

Dragonflesh has a particular appeal, because it bestows health and greater length on the devourer, causing some landowners to go too far in eating servants and the weaker children of tenant farmers. The novel begins with a quarrel over the bestowal of the patriarch's body and ends with the results of the lawsuit over the way his flesh was distributed.

Immediately after the death of the patriarch, his married daughter "came in, walking delicately as always. She sighed at Penn, and he knew she must have heard the whole quarrel and wondered how she would act. She bent and took one bite, but one very large bite, from the breast. It was a bite that satisfied both what Penn had said and her husband's insistence. She could say to Penn that it was one bite, but she could also say to her husband that she had consumed the greater part of the breast. It was a most diplomatic bite, and Penn, despite himself, was awed at her grasp of such nuance."

One of the funniest bits--because of the mental image--is about the casual way the dragons "dress" when they're in the country, as opposed to the way they must dress in the city (here called Irieth):
"In the country, in summer, it is permissible to go about with any hat or none. Blessed parsons may be seen in battered old toppers. Respectable young ladies fly around bareheaded, and August ladies take to the skies in caps of tattered lace...In Irieth, however, at any time of year, hats were obligatory for any dragon who wished to be thought gently born."
Don't you just love the picture of the dread beasts flying about with Victorian-style bonnets and top hats perched precariously on their heads?

The descriptions of dragon dinners were also amusing:
"As the family were alone, dinner consisted of six muttons, their skin and wool removed before they reached the table by farmers expert in that craft. Wool, and whole muttonwool fleeces, were much prized in millinery. The fleeces would be sent to the cities and reappear in the form of cunningly contrived headcoverings...."
"I wonder why it is that there is a prohibition on cooking meat?" Berend said, conversationally, swallowing a great bite of the fatty underbelly of her mutton. "It smells rather pleasant."
"Flaming at it isn't cooking it," Daverak said, looking a little guilty....
"The prohibition is because the filthy Yarge do it," Daverak said, turning his seared haunch in his claw a little as if wondering if it would make him a social pariah to eat it. "That's what they told me in school anyway. Apparently they tried to make us do it during the Conquest, and it was one of the reasons we revolted. Disgusting cooked meat sticks in the craw. That's what they said, anyway. I've never tried it myself."
"Is the haunch you flamed disgusting?" Berend asked.
"I already said that was different from cooking," Daverak said, frowning.
"But how does it taste?" Berend asked. "As cooked meat is illegal, that's probably the closest I'll ever come to seeing any, and it does smell pleasant, or at least interesting. How does it taste?"
"The same as always, only a little warmer," Daverak said, taking a tentative taste. "Besides, if you really want to try cooked meat there are places in Irieth you can get it. It's one of those thrills some dragons go in for...."

Humans, of course, are the "filthy Yarge," but there aren't any in this novel until the happy ending, when a Yarge ambassador comes to court for a formal occasion and a newly betrothed young lady kindly helps her mother-in-law-to-be bear the sight of him in public.

This is not an adventure story. Despite the dinner and dragon-eating scenes, it is not bloody. It culminates with a celebration of a happy--and propertied-- marriage for all the remaining characters, and so ends, as Oscar Wilde's novel-writing character Miss Prizm says all fiction should: "the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily."


FreshHell said...

Hmmm, I don't think I have sufficient imagination to enjoy this. I'm sure it was fun to write but, I don't know, it just seems...silly. But then fantasy isn't usually something I read beyond the YA level.

Karen said...

This sounds like something for my Christmas list, when my mother-in-law asks for ideas...

Jenny said...

I'm reading this right now, and finding it charming! And it makes a nice break from the military fantasy series I'm reading, which I am confident is going to end badly. :p

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I make it sound more silly than it is because I really love the silly bits.

Karen, I think you'd like it.

Jenny, I did think part of its charm was the happy ending.