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Book Note: Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw

I read this book about 22-May-2004. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2003. This note was last modified Wednesday, 26-May-2004 21:03:17 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


This is one of those books that isn't all that much like other books. Or, it's like lots of other books, but those books aren't much like each other.

It's a warm, cozy story about Victorian dragons. Er. Well, parts of it look like that from some angles. Setting aside the fact that eating dragon-flesh is the only thing that allows dragons to grow to the larger sizes. And that there are a lot of dragonets hatched that aren't really healthy and can't be allowed to grow up anyway, for the good of the race. And that some lords feel they can eat anybody that's inconvenient, especially servants.

And lots of other parts aren't actually very cozy either, including many of the parts that correspond most closely to Victorian conventions.

Jo says some straight-forward things about some of the origins of the story in her dedication; in particular, that she wanted to investigate a society in which some of the Victorian beliefs about women, especially biological beliefs, were actually true. That's a scary idea, and resulted in a society that's quite bizarre to me. Of course, many past human societies make me feel that way.

I'm glad to say it avoids being a tragedy; you can never count on this Victorian-influenced stuff to behave itself in that regard. Or much of any other kind of literature.

As always in Jo's books, the background is both interesting and confusing. They've all, so far, had clear references to our world and our history, and also clear distinguishing marks. But they're not structured or written primarily as "alternate histories"; the details of the similarities and differences aren't investigated or explained in the story at all. I don't remember other writers leaving me with this feeling.

The dragons were conquered, in the past, by the Yarge (humans). After the dragons managed to acquire tools, they broke free, and are now an independent nation with diplomatic relations with the Yarge. And, finally, near the end there's a throwaway that they call themselves the Jh'oarg. Finally, after staring at that for a while, I think maybe it's supposed to be how the dragons hear them saying "George", presumably as in "St. George". Otherwise I'm missing the point.

This conquest sort-of played the role of the Norman conquest, I think. It placed many dragons into subjugation (symbolized by binding their wings, as servants are still bound; and parsons). But the dragons broke free again. They may live in the northern areas mostly; maybe the model is more the Picts, or some earlier group of settlers?

The Yarge seem to have infect the dragons with a variant of their religion, too; though the Old Religion that still lives on semi-legitemately seems to be very closely related, as in two branches of Christianity.

Dragon society is divided into those gently born, and those not. There's an array of titles for those gently born, which I can never keep straight (particularly the hierarchical relationships), but which are very important to some of them. Dragons must eat dragon flesh to grow. They eat their dead, and their culls, and a lord's right to declare culls and eat them (donating at least the eyes to the parson) is a major source of their power. Dragons who don't eat dragon flesh grow to 7 feet. Lords grow up to 50 or so, and eventually come to breathe fire as well. The gentlemen can also challenge each other to fights, essentially duels, and the loser gets eaten.

Like everything I've read of Jo's, this is a very interesting book, well worth reading.

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David Dyer-Bennet