Tooth and Claw


Jo Walton


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 17, 2004

o Walton won the John Campbell award for best new writer for her book The King's Peace. I must assume that book was orders of magnitude better than this unimpressive offering. The idea behind Tooth and Claw is clever - imagine a Victorian society, but one populated with dragons instead of people. How would it be different? As Walton describes it, things wouldn't be much different at all. Dragons would write letters, go on picnics, wear wigs, build railroads (why would dragons, who can fly, ever ride on a railroad?), etc. The sense of "dragon-ness" is completely missing from these characters - they act like people in dragon suits. Remember how Watership Down was completely convincing that its characters were rabbits? Tooth and Claw failed to convince me that it was about dragons at all (no matter how many times they whirled their eyes in distress - what the heck? What creature is going to spin their eyes in their head when threatened?)

I think one of the big flaws with Tooth and Claw, is its length. It is much too short for the number of plot lines introduced. The hardcover edition I read is a mere 253 pages. Thus, we are given the plot thread that Avan has the job of city planning for a large rundown part of the capital - his beautiful aide (whom he befriended when she was a female on the street, but secretly she is a wealthy heiress) gives this information to a priest of the old religon - but thread is dropped entirely. At the end of the novel, the human ambassador meets with the dragons, exploring the history between the two species, or describing more of their interaction would be interesting, but that's not allowed with only 253 pages. Haner is going to join a movement to free the servant dragons from having their wings bound - but nothing comes of that either. (Wouldn't Haner be better served trying to prevent the lord dragons from eating the lesser dragons, rather than just getting their wings untied?) The climax of the story passes in two sentences - "Fights rarely last long, even fights to the death. It seemed endless, but it was less than five minutes before the whirling flaming clawing heap of dragon sorted itself out, with Daverak dead underneath and Sher, scorched and bleeding, standing triumphantly above" How about that for passive, dull story telling? Could a battle between dragons be described with any less enthusiasm? Is this writing style mimicing Victorian novels?

The book is cluttered with little action and much conversation. Here is a couple of chapter titles: "A third deathbed and sixth confession". "A third dinner party and a seventh confession". "The second hearing". Whoa! Makes the pulse pound to read those intriguing chapter titles, eh? I think Walton fails completely in this book because she doesn't want to place her dragons in any real danger. Get lost in a cave? No worries, here is a bunch of lost treasure for you to claim! Face a lawsuit? No worries - the treasure will allow you to live happily ever after! Fear that you will be ostracized for practicing the Old Religion? No worries - every one who finds out acts with tolerance and understand! Yuck. This book is a waste of time. One star is all it gets.

*** This comment added Dec 31, 2004 ****

Holy smokes, I just read on the World Fantasy Award website that this wretched novel won the 2003 World Fantasy Award for best novel! Check out World Fantasy Awards

Tooth & Claw beat two really excellent books for best fantasy novel: The Etched City, by K.J. Bishop, and Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer. It also beat The Light Ages by Ian MacLeod, which was a pretty good novel too. I have not read Fudoki by Kij Johnson (never heard of her), but that might be added to my to-be-read list, which is about 200 books long at the moment. Anyway, I still think Tooth & Claw is a disappointing novel, your opinion may vary.