Jo Walton’s first novel, The King’s Peace, was a book that I respected but didn’t like — I could tell that it succeeded at what it set out to do, but I wasn’t interested in reading a book of that sort (post-Roman Anglo-celtish quasi-Arthur), no matter how well done. Respecting a book without liking it is always a disquieting experience for me — I’m still bothered by not finishing that Gene Wolfe short story collection — so I was a bit hesitant about starting Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw . As is typically the case, my hesitation was misplaced.
I’d not liked Walton’s first novel because it was in a milieu I was tired of; but there’s no way anyone could be tired of the setting of Tooth and Claw, because it’s wonderfully original and unique. The motivation for the book, an author’s note informs us, is to create a world where the conventions of Victorian sentimental novels are laws of nature. Which means, in this case, that the characters are all dragons.
The surprising thing about this novel is how well it works on all the levels on which it needs to work. On one level, it needs to work as a Victorian novel, complete with blushing maidens, a somewhat rakish city to contrast to the dowdy countryside, a slightly venal parson, snobbish noble patrons, and lots of concern about weddings. On another level, it needs to work as a piece of science fiction, complete with plausible world-building, characters who make sense on their own terms, and enough originality not to feel like England with the serial numbers filed off. Combining these two elements is not an especially easy task, one would think.
But not only does this book succeed at both, but the combination of the two elements make for a novel that’s deeper and more interesting than either Victorian pastiche or intelligent-dragon world-building would be on their own. This is, in short, a superb novel, both fun to read and possessed of literary virtue, great writing, and insight into humanity. If the premise sounds at all interesting to you, go read it.