Book: Tooth and Claw - Livre d'Or








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Book: Tooth and Claw
Monday, 04 February 2008 at 02:39 pm
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Author: Jo Walton

Details: (c) 2003 Jo Walton; Pub Tor 2003; ISBN 0-765-30264-0

Verdict: Tooth and Claw is a slight story in a really impressive setting.

Reasons for reading it: I was reading papersky's journal when she was talking about it, and I was intrigued.

How it came into my hands: Birthday present from rysmiel, after I failed to find a copy on Amazon.

The idea of Tooth and claw is almost cooler than the book. Well, the book is pretty cool, but it would be hard for any novel to be quite cool enough to match up to the idea of a Trollope novel with dragons for characters. They really are the most excellent dragons. They have real physiology, and that affects their social organization, and they are absolutely minimally anthropomorphic, which is even more of an achievement considering that the whole point of the book is that their society is a mirror of the human society that is portrayed in early nineteenth century novels.

In general, the worldbuilding is really wonderful. There's so much detail there, so very clearly an entire society with history and politics and geography and the whole lot. I particularly loved the dragon religion and the schism between the Old Belief and the contemporary orthodoxy, oh, and the dragon legal system. And unlike the sort of Victorian novel it's pastiching, T&C includes a whole stratified social system, rather than a world where the upper classes live in a magical bubble with no economic basis at all. The central idea where female dragons are very literally, physiologically and visibly, marked by being alone with males works really well too.

The plot is rather slight, though. It feels too transparently like an excuse to showcase the worldbuilding. I cared about the characters, but the romance plots were all totally predictable and the convenient strokes of fortune which resolve the social disparity between the lovers were both obvious and contrived. I did feel sorry for Gelener Telstie; I don't think she deserved her fate at all. I suppose you can read the book as making the point that Victorian life was pretty miserable for women who weren't the heroine of romance novels. The best happy ending they could hope for is to be married to someone socially suitable and find a life of moderate material comfort and security as well as hard work, social restriction and extremely dangerous childbirth.

I haven't actually read any Trollope. I was going to, partly because he's a literary giant, and partly out of curiosity to see how T&C compares. Then I learned that Trollope was a racist scumbag, so I was put off. This isn't about not supporting a morally bad person, because Trollope is long dead and not even his heirs care whether I buy his books or not. It's not about expecting everybody to live up to 21st century standards of political correctness, or anything stupid like that; Trollope was actively racist, he deliberately falsified data to make life worse for West Indian blacks. It's just that I doubt I could enjoy reading someone who makes those kinds of comments, and apparently he's nearly as bad on the subject of Jews as black people. Walton herself has some very interesting comments on how she dealt with Trollope's racism and other unacceptable views.

Anyway, the point is that I can't say whether Walton is successful in pastiching Trollope, but as a generic nineteenth century romance, T&C works pretty well. The only place it falls short of the target is that it is too light and easy to read to be convincing. Even the dialogue feels slightly anachronistic, but the narrative just isn't even slightly dense enough to create the appropriate atmosphere. So, ok, it isn't Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I'm being a bit unfair in holding it up to that kind of standard; it's streets ahead of the average Victorian period romance. But I do like the Victorian atmosphere, the excitement about modernity, the social upheaval caused by broad scale industrialization, the tension between the beginnings of scientific, humanist thought and the still powerful traditions, all of that stuff is spot on. The arc with Haner getting interested in "radical" causes is the perfect send-up of the typical situation where the heroine's bleeding heart leads her to sympathy with the lower orders, and the hero admires her sensitivity while at the same time laughing at her political naivete. I also like the way the narrator addresses the reader directly, that rings true, and it works particularly well because of the subtle cues which show that the reader is assumed to be a dragon.

T&C is worth reading for the world building, and is an enjoyable read as well, even when it leans a little towards the frothy side.


Whereaboooots: Benandi
Moooood: happyhappy
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 12th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry

Then I learned that Trollope was a racist scumbag, so I was put off.

(Link)
I was reading "The Essays of Elia" and was brought up short by the racism of "Imperfect Sympathies", and, more startlingly, by my own late recognition of the racist element. The theme of that essay is that Charles Lamb cannot bring himself to "like all [groups of] people alike."

He admits that his imperfect sympathies are "a bundle of prejudices" but he then instances reasons. He cannot like Scotchmen (sic) because his butterfly mind is not in tune with their [perceived] intellectual and logical rigidity. I found this cerebral stereotyping mildly amusing until I passed to the next group of people, Jews. That part of the essay is crudely anti-semitic, including a reference to Hugh of Lincoln. As I said, I am very worried by my own failure to recognise the racism of the Scottish section of the essay until I was faced with a direct and offensive attack on my own identity.

Southernwood
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:February 15th, 2008 02:00 am (UTC)
5 days after journal entry
(Link)
Hm. I was sure I had some comments from the first time I read it, but now I can't find them. Mostly I agree with you (did you say you agreed with me in some way about it?). A few points:

* The romances aren't described in much depth, but I though they were very appropriate for the slightly abstracted level of description used in the book.

* Indeed, the most wonderful thing is the world, including the sort of plot but not the details, which is *really* wonderful.

* And also the style, it captures a genteel yet violent feel perfectly.

* Parts did seem a little pat, but reading it again troubled me a lot less

* Parts of the world seemed a little pat. Such as the hormonal flush of female dragons, or the arbitrary religious restrictions. On the one hand, they're wonderful reflection of society in this world, which really *are* very annoying. On the other hand, it's really hard to portray sympathy with someone else's cultural mores.

* Regardless, it was certainly gripping -- I really wanted to find out

* This only just occurred to me. Most of the dragon characters you can give a little picture of in a few words, as good characters are. But can you describe the differences between Berend, Selendra, and Haner, other than by what happened to them? That might be a good reflection of the society.

* It's a minor point, but the names are very good -- they really do sound like both nineteenth century heroines and dragons. And foreign yet pronounceable, evocative and distinct.

* The characterisation of the legal system was a little pat, but vivid, funny and moving.

* Were you troubled by Gelener? I was surprised. I assumed she was a typical heiress, and would find another high-born dragon when Sher wasn't interested. But I got the impression it said that the reason she didn't was she wasn't just not suited to Sher, but as obnoxious as he thought she was. And so ended up with Frelt. Contrariwise, Frelt certainly acted unforgiveably to all three sisters[1], but there seemed no indication he couldn't have been an interesting and honourable husband to someone else after all. The comparison in my mind was of non-romantic but acceptable matches to dull parsons in other period books.

[1] And at the funeral, although I assumed he was just being averagely stodgy and politically-weathervaned in an awkward situation -- I'd have been equally irate with him, but understand it would have been difficult to throw himself between Daverack and the body.
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