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.