Some fantasy novels are epic, with rich plot lines and multiple characters on a quest to save the world from some hidden magic or powerful being. These books can be a lot of fun and interesting, though often the plot overshadows the characters. Other fantasy novels are light, fluffy comedies where nothing much happens but they make you laugh your tail off.
Finally, there are those fantasy novels that really defy description, like Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton. As the dust jacket says, it is based on the Victorian novels of Anthony Trollope. Walton takes the Victorian setting and gives it huge twist: all of the characters are dragons. Yes, that's right. Fire-breathing (though not all of them do) lizards that can fly (though not all of them can). And, most importantly, proper fire-breathing dragons who have formed a society based on class structure, money (especially gold and treasure) and arranged marriage. Walton takes this concept and writes an intriguing story of family honor and love. It's a real treat to read.
Tooth and Claw is a tale of a family. The father has just died after having confessed to his son, a local parson. Confession is against the rules of the current religion, and Penn could be thrown out of the church if it became known he had heard it. He doesn't think there was any way it will come out, however. Unfortunately, Daverak, his sister's ambitious and arrogant husband, has eaten more of Penn's father's body then he was originally willed (eating dead relatives is how dragons increase their strength and size), and Penn's brother Avan is determined to sue Daverak for it. Penn may be called to give evidence in this suit, and he would feel compelled to mention the confession. Penn's unmarried sisters are split up, Selendra living with Penn, and Haner living with Daverak and her sister. Their father was only able to leave them a little bit of money, so they agree to combine their resources. Whoever gets an offer of marriage first will, with the approval of the other, use the entire dowry for themselves, bringing the other sister to live with them. Will one of the sisters find love at last, and turn into a pink blushing bride (that's how dragon females show betrothal, by turning from a vivid gold to a bright pink)? Will Penn's secret come out? And what of the suit against Daverak? Will he get his just deserts?
It's difficult to make the plot description interesting without giving every detail (and even then you might find that it doesn't attract your attention). I think that's because this sort of plot usually does nothing for me. I would not have read this book if I hadn't both received this as a review copy and been a big fan of Jo Walton. I'm glad I did, because I think it transcends the genre and becomes a nifty little novel in its own right. When I say "transcends the genre," I'm speaking as somebody who has not read any Victorian fiction, so Walton may be way off in her homage. However, she is good enough that I trust she hit it pretty good.
The conceit that dragons are living in a Victorian-style society is a wonderful concept, and Walton does a lot with it. She adds the proper-sounding customs and traditions (dowries, arranged marriages, family honour and the like), and mixes in touches of her own (the eating of the dead to make the rest of the family stronger, the binding of servants' wings so that they can't fly away and the ritual binding of the wings for religious figures) that add to the fantasy element but still blend favorably with the Victorian style. Every once in a while, you forget that you're reading a book about dragons, and then Walton will mention something about wings, flying, or the size of the dragons and you'll remember that she's talking about beasts that can reach up to forty feet in length.
Walton tells the tale with the gentleness and humor that, I imagine, most Victorian novels have. Her prose is wonderful as she makes the genre conventions her own by putting her own spin on them. At times, the narrator of the piece intercedes to speak directly to the reader (something else that may be a genre technique), be it a humorous aside or clarification of a point that the reader may have missed. I thought this might be distracting, but it doesn't turn out to be. I would call the whole style of the book "pleasant". There are a couple of deaths, but only one through violence and even that is not vividly described. It is not a page-turner; you have to lose yourself in the writing or already be a fan of this type of story in order to make it through. If this style bores you and you find you're not entranced by Walton's evocative writing, then even 256 pages will seem too long.
I haven't said anything about the characters yet, and that's mostly because there isn't a whole lot to say. They fit what I imagine are the genre character roles they are supposed to fit: women who are either looking for their place in society or who have already married and found their place; men who are either conceited in their status or just trying to make their way in the world as well as find a suitable woman to marry and have a clutch of dragonets with; servants who try not to be noticed (or, in the case of Daverak's servants, eaten); and local religious figures who are either soft and noble (Penn) or pushy and arrogant (Blessed Frelt). Walton makes us care about all these characters, letting them stretch the bonds of their Victorian roles without losing the basics of them.
There is nothing deep or meaningful about Tooth and Claw, and nothing earth-shattering in its presentation. Instead, we get a delightful story that reminds us of old times, one that washes over us with a feeling of nostalgia and a quieter time. If you're a fan of Victorian novels, you'll probably like this one despite the fact that it's about dragons. However, I don't think the reverse is true. I don't feel myself drawn to any other stories like this, and it's Walton's ability to bring me into the fold that makes this book a standout.