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Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton Jo Walton is my new favorite book nerd. She's a huge dork for science-fiction and fantasy, which you know if you read her wonderful retrospective reviews over at Tor.com. She's also clearly a geek for the written word in general, particularly 19th century Victorian-era social novels. And so, in grand "you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter" tradition, she wrote a book that combines them both, recasting a Victorian novel with anthropomorphic dragons. It's a literary mash-up with the potential for disaster, but rather than just coming up with a cute idea and shoving it into an old book ("Oh hahaha what if Anna Karenina was a robot because 'android' starts with the same sound!"), she reimagined old literary tropes in a new context: what if the social tête-à-têtes that make up the "action sequences" in Austen or Brönte exist not because people were uptight back then, but due to immutable facts about dragon physiology? Reading books like Jane Eyre or Persuasion (yes, I know, Austen isn't actually Victorian, shut it) require a bit of mental exercise because you have to keep remembering context -- the social strictures that bind the women and their reactions to said help define them as characters. But where Anne Elliot has to be careful not to be alone with a man because of what others might think, the female dragons in Tooth & Claw have to watch out because close, romantic contact with a male will cause their scales to shift from gold to pink, signaling the end of their maidenhood. The story here is nothing new, but rightly so; this stuff needs to be familiar if its going to work. So we've got the death of a patriarch, squabbles over an inheritance, three sisters looking to secure a position, a lawsuit over a perceived slight, a challenge against religious ideals. But instead of a money or land, the inheritance in question is the consumption of said patriarch's corpse. And the sisters need to secure a position... lest they be eaten.More than just playing with genre, Walton offers a creative new take on dragon lore, with some of the finest world-building I've seen in any fantasy novel, slotting the rules of dragon society into the Victorian-era framework with apparent ease. There's so much to enjoy, things you really don't want to spoil for yourself if you're into this sort of thing. There's a bit about the different wigs a lawyer dragon wears to perform different functions during a court case that made me snort (also, once again, I award bonus points to any book with a courtroom scene that includes an old chestnut like, "This is highly irregular!"). There's a lot of detail about what kind of hats everyone wears, which, DRAGONS in HATS. Fancy hats. The logistics of why dragons sleep on gold and eat their dead are fascinating and amusing. I am hardly a dork for Victorian Lit (to wit: apparently the real source material, per the author, is Anthony Trollope, but I've never read him, though Dickens and Charlotte are also obvious analogues) but the creativity of this book makes it impossible not to appreciate Walton's wit regardless. I'd hesitate to call it perfect, but it's very near, right down to the narrator, who lapses into the occasional "attentive readers will remember" spiel. And yes, maybe I would prefer a little more acerbic bite a la Jane, but I don't remember a part in any other book where the narrator politely implored the reader not to storm the publisher's office and rend and eat her. ~~~Reading this got me thinking how many Victorian-era novels could be improved through the liberal application of dragons (this idea is totally original, I don't know why you are looking at me that way, Quirk Books). To whit:1) Jane Eyre: This one is obvious -- Bertha is being kept in the attic hidden chamber not only because she's crazy, but because she is a female dragon that can shoot flame (this is untoward and shocking!). At the end of the book, she burns down the cave and Mr. Rochester loses a wing.2) Wuthering Heights: Heathcliffe can just go ahead and eat Catherine's corpse and stop whining over her grave already. You share the same soul, why not share the same body, eh?3) Bleak House: After lingering on for decades, the lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes to a sudden and unexpected end when the claimants on both sides fight and kill one another in open court and are eaten by the serving class. 4) Tess of the D'Urbervilles: Only Tess is a dragon, and she eats Alec Stoke-d'Urberville and claims his title. She then marries the local parson, Angel Clare, but eats him too, because he is a pantywaist. Tess becomes Queen of the Dragons.