Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton "It is the way of the dragon to eat each other." - Dignified Bon Agornin, Tooth and Claw

I've read that Tooth and Claw owes its existence to Victorian novels, particularly Anthony Trollope's Framely Parsonage. Apparently the author was reading two novels, one was The Small House at Allington by Trollope and the other was a fantasy with dragons.

"I complained that the fantasy novel didn't really understand dragons, and he (her husband) misheard and thought that I meant that Trollope didn't. Naturally, this led me to the revelation that Trollope did understand dragons extremely well, and that in fact the rather peculiar nature of the women in Trollope can be explained by the facts of dragon biology." (Author's website)

Dignified Bon Agornin had very humble beginnings, without gold, without a title, and only a widowed mother as family, his father and two weaker siblings having been eaten. With little more than his good name and initiative, Bon amassed a fortune through "trade", bought his "Dignifed" title, the estate of Agnorin, and wed a "gently born bride." But now, after 500 years, Bon is dying, and his family have gathered to pay last respects and to, uh, partake of his dragon flesh when he dies.

It is customary that a dragon's family gets the privilege of eating their deceased family member - except for the eyes which always are given to the parson attending the dying dragon. Trouble begins when Illustrious Daverak, who married Berend, Bon's oldest daughter, takes more than was agreed, leaving Bon's children - Blessed Penn, Respectable Avan, and Selendra and Haren - with greatly reduced portions. Blessed Penn challenges Daverak, but the prideful and repulsive Blessed Frelt, the local pastor modeled after the odious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, sides with Daverak because Bon refused Frelt's suit for Berend's hand in marriage five years ago. Adding insult to injury, Frelt manages to corner Selendra in hopes of coercing her into marriage the day after Bon dies and puts her hopes for any future marriage in turmoil. Daverak not only takes a lion's portion of Bon's body but he also gains control of the Agornin estate, forcing the two youngest sisters who were clutch mates, to be separated. Selendra will live with Blessed Penn, his wife, Felin, and their two dragonets, Wontas and Gerin. Haren will live with Illustrious Daverak, her brother-in-law, and Illus' Berend, her oldest sister. Avan who would have benefited the most by the magic in his father's flesh is enraged by Daverak's selfishness and files a law suit against his brother-in-law.

The world-building in Tooth and Claw is rich and well-developed. It starts on a cellular level with the biology of the dragons, particularly their colors. Males are simple in coloration being either black or bronze and have claws to aid in hunting. Females begin with golden scales and have no claws. However, their golden color changes to a blush pink when a they come into close proximity with a male non family member dragon, usually when they become engaged. Blessed Frelt attempted to compromise Selendra by crowding her, leaning on her, and forcing a hormonal change to occur resulting in the "pink" color which is a very visible equivalent of losing her virginity. The pink color deepens to red after the female dragon has a clutch of dragons. The only other colors are an eventual gray for spinsters and green signifying illness or disease in either male or female. Writing is done mostly by female dragons because claws on the males make it difficult. Clerking jobs in the city of Ireith are held by women for this reason.

Although the dragon diet is carnivorous in nature, it is only by eating other dragon flesh that dragons grow in size and thus in strength and power. In this society, it is truly survival of the fittest because stronger dragons cull the weak, the ill, and the elderly dragons from their race regularly. Illustrious Daverak is a great proponent of eat or be eaten, and is, in fact, feared by his servants, the farmers and workers on his estate, and even his family. He is known to visit his tenants when new clutches are hatched and using flimsy excuses for killing and eating those poor dragonets he deems too weak or too ill. Daverak gives Bon's liver to one of his children, Lamorek, in hopes of reversing his unfortunate green color, but later poor Lamorek is sacrificed to ensure his mother, expecting another clutch of dragonets, eats well.

Dragon society in Tiamath is modeled after an aristocracy with titles like Eminences, Augusts, Exalted, Illustrious, and Dignified. While there are many country estates and provinces mentioned, the capital city of Irieth is the seat of government and is crowded, bustling, and has its slums. At one time there were also Majestics and Highnesses, but those titles have died out. Hats show one's place in society, and in the case of the legal profession, the wigs worn during a legal hearing indicate whether an attorney is stating facts, asking questions or making objections, or talking to witnesses. Religion is an important part of dragon society, too. For example, Blessed Penn Agornin is a pastor in the Church. Pastors have their wings bound by red cords and have freely given up flying. Worship is on every Firstday when no one is allowed to fly. Generally, all servants wings are bound to prevent flying, but it depends on their master's beneficence. There are ten months that correspond to ten seasons - Freshwinter, Icewinter, Deepwinter, Softwinter, Thaw, Budding, Flowering, Greensummer, Highsummer and Leafturn. Although living mostly peaceably now, the mortal enemies of all dragon kind are known as Yarge. I wondered about the evil Yarge each time they were mentioned, but it isn't until the end of the book when a Yarge ambassador visits an important ball introducing a newly appointed Eminence that my curiosity was satisfied.

The characters are so well-written and fully fleshed out, especially Selendra, Haren, Felin, Penn,and Sher Benandi. There is a wonderful romance between Selendra and Sher, and the backstory of the intriguingly mysterious Sebeth, Avan's lover and clerk, was at once fascinating and heartbreaking as well as serving to show in detail the fate of an unprotected female dragon.

I was wary of reading this book because I'm not a huge Victorian novel fan nor have I read much in the fantasy genre. Although I have read several Dickens novels, the Bronte's, and a few others, I've never read any Trollope so I can't say what part(s) Tooth and Claw are similar to Framely Parsonage. I do know from Victorian novels I've read that there seems to be an inordinate amount of death and dying in them, lots about manners and propriety, class differences, and, of course, morality. So in these general ways I can see the similarities of Tooth and Claw to a Victorian novel. To me, Tooth and Claw read more like a Jane Austen novel albeit if Emma or Elizabeth or Fanny or Anne or Captain Wentworth or Mr. Darcy were dragons.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved Tooth and Claw. Not having lots of fantasy novel reading under my belt made me a little nervous, but I was pulled in immediately to the travails of the various Agornin family members. As an interesting side note, there is apparently a role playing game based on this book which also contains three chapters of an unfinished sequel. Tooth and Claw is funny, a terrifically engrossing book, and utterly wonderful, and I would so dearly love to read a sequel. It's unfortunate the author has no plans to finish it.