The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Biology is a Harsh Mistress

James Schellenberg
Posted June 3, 2004

Dragons are mean, Victorian dragons are meanerTooth and Claw by Jo Walton is about dragons and, to be perfectly honest, I had low expectations for this book. Too many fantasy novels have been written about dragons, and the subject has been beaten quite to death. Could it still be possible to write something interesting about these winged fire-breathing creatures of myth and legend? And Tooth and Claw is a story where all the characters are dragons, which could have been even more disastrous. But this is an ambitious book that is also quite strange and cruel. It’s essentially a Victorian novel where biology is always destiny, with dragons who are there to express the violence inherent in the society.

Tooth and Claw is a family story. The book begins with the dying patriarch Bon Agornin as he tries to say his final goodbyes to his five children. Some are married with their own dragonets, but two of his daughters have yet to find mates. One son is a parson, so his wings are tied back according to dragon tradition, and another son lives in the big city with his lover. As in Victorian novels (especially in books by Trollope, who is mentioned specifically by Walton as an inspiration), everyone is intensely concerned with reputation, marrying upwards in society, and increasing personal wealth.

The underlying cruelty of this society shows up immediately. At Bon Agornin’s deathbed, a powerful in-law named Daverak takes more than his fair share of the father’s body. In one the best bits of speculation in the book, Walton’s dragons grow to the natural length of seven feet, and if they want to grow longer, they have to eat the flesh of other dragons. A whole system favouring the aristocracy has grown up around the magic properties of dragonflesh: servants and farmers are denied dragonflesh, and in fact their children can be culled by the lords of the estate. Daverak, one of those characters who the reader will love to hate, is so smug and pitiless that he eats one of his own sickly children.

It’s hard to imagine a more potent metaphor for the dangers of a top-heavy social system. Daverak is stronger and bigger than any of the dragons under his rule, and he’s always going to be that way. In fact, protest is pretty much welcomed as an excuse by Daverak to devour yet more magic flesh (as happens to an obstructive servant later on in the story). In this world, the rich are going to get richer and larger and stronger and the poor are going to stay poor and powerless. It’s all quite grim.

Dragons are mean, Victorian dragons are meanerWalton adds a second and possibly more distressing example of biological destiny in the story. Early in the book, we find out that that young maiden dragons have gold-coloured scales; if they fall in love, their scales turn pink, and as they live longer in a marriage, their scales become deeper and deeper red in colour. The initial process can be forced on maiden dragons by sudden proximity by a male, and this is what happens to Selendra, one of Bon Agornin’s unmarried daughters. She doesn’t want to live with the shame of a sullied reputation, so her servant finds a potion to turn Selendra’s scales back to gold. The only problem is that there’s now a chance that when Selendra finds someone she’s truly in love with, her scales won’t be able to turn pink again.

The reputation of a young maiden is literalized in a particularly cruel way here, biology as destiny to the infinite degree, complete with an insufferable double standard. Male dragons have no physical indicator of their reputation, only the females. In another heart-breaking example, Sebeth, the lover back in the city, was kidnapped as a young maiden, but she turned pink before her family could pay the ransom. Now she lives a strange life in the city, caught in an unmarriageable state. As another dragon says about her late in the book: “She was not maiden, wife, or widow, there were no words for what she was” (232). Again, this can be grim to read, but Walton creates a compelling story out of these physical aspects of dragon society.

Walton’s Tooth and Claw was a pleasant surprise for me, and I enjoyed it more than other fantasy novels I’ve read recently. Despite an excessively romantic ending (perhaps intended satirically), this book deconstructs dragon society rather than just relying on its exotic setting for one more round of good versus evil. Walton has clearly put a lot of thought into this book and at about 250 pages, it packs more punch than many books twice its length. It’s also a devilishly accurate pastiche of the style of Victorian novels, for those who would find that appealing. For me, the book works because of how it uses interesting ideas to tell a gripping story.

This review was originally published in slightly different format at Challenging Destiny.

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