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Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton


Oh, what an absolute gem of a book.

Quiet and unassuming on the surface, yet so utterly charming and thought-provoking. Bon Agornin dies one day, leaving behind two sons and three daughters. His sons, Penn and Avan, are in the clergy and government respectively, and his eldest daughter, Berend, is the matron in a wealthy family. The youngest daughters, Haner and Selendra, are unmarried, and are forced to separate when their patriarch dies. Much of the story is about Haner and Selendra being uprooted from their old home and settling down in their new environment: Haner with Berend and her husband, and Selendra with her parson brother Penn.

The real pivot of the story? They are all dragons, and dragons have a singular custom -- that of eating dragon flesh of the deceased, because that is the only way they can increase in power and sustenance. Walton gives them other dragon-like characteristics and rituals too, but at the heart of the story is the grim truth that dragon eats dragon to flourish. It is to Walton's credit that she makes dragon customs like these feel real but empathetic.

There are rules for dragonflesh repast, however -- it should be consented to by the deceased (or the deceased's rightful guardian), and otherwise, only dragons too weak to survive long may be killed. when Bon dies, these rules are broken by his own greedy son-in-law Daverak, and that is the shocking incident which sets the ominous undertone in the book.

Written in a style similar to that of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, Walton's characterizations are simple but her observations about people (even if they are in anthropomorphic forms) are so very succinct and on-the-mark that it was impossible not to smile with glee as the story unfolded. There is an underlying droll humor too, throughout the pages, which made the book a cozy pleasure. Satire and comedy of manners were what Trollope and Austen did best, and Walton's Tooth and Claw follows in the same footsteps.

There are so many threads running through, about radical religious thinking, women's independence, whether might makes right always, rigidities of family hierarchies, the subtleties of indirect bigotry, the never-changing pomposity of Court procedures. Walton manages all these threads deftly, and even though she does not narrate a revolutionary awakening in dragon society, she does bring about small changes in the lives of the Agornin family -- and really, those little changes are more than enough for any reader.

Tooth and Claw won the 2004 World Fantasy Award for best novel.
Rating: 9/10. Highly recommended.
Tags: 9stars, books, fantasy, recs, reviews
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