About the Book
All of the characters in Tooth and Claw are dragons. Yes - big, scaly, fire-breathing Dragons who hoard treasure. But don’t let that scare you away! You’ll relate to these endearing dragons as they navigate strict societal rules in search of career success, family stability, and true love. This odd little book by Jo Walton is a delight.
Buy the Book
- About Jo Walton
- A Brief History of Dragons Throughout Western Literature
- Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire-Breathing Beasts
- Victorian Literature
Support the Show
Here is a reflection on reading from President Barack Obama:
"When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen, setting aside being president...the most important stuff I’ve learned, I think I’ve learned from novels.”
Welcome to episode 2 of the WE SHOULD ALL BE BOOKWORMS podcast. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. In this episode I will introduce you to **Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton **
All of the characters in Tooth and Claw are dragons. Yes - you heard me right. Big, scaly, fire breathing Dragons who hoard treasure. But don’t let that scare you away! Give it a chance and follow the saga of 5 dragon siblings as they deal with the ramifications of their father’s death and try to secure their place in the world. You’ll fall for these endearing dragons as they navigate strict societal rules in search of career success, family stability, and true love. Trust me, this odd little book is a delight.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
I used to think there was a type of novel I liked and type of novel I didn’t. Tooth and Claw showed me that I can enjoy ANY type of novel as long as it’s well written and the plot and characters are engaging. And so even though every single character in this book is a dragon — yes, a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings type of dragon with sharp teeth and scales and wings and fire — do not let that prejudice you against it. This book is an enchanting soap opera with a little something for every kind of reader.
For instance, if you like classic victorian novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice then you’ll like this book. If you like hard core fantasy novels (or movies) like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, then you’ll like this book. And if you like contemporary romance novels like Jo Jo Moyes’ Me Before You - then you’ll also like this book.
Oh, and if you like physically beautiful books, then you’ll definitely like this book. Theres’s this new pocket-sized hardcover edition that will be excellent eye candy on your shelves.
Tooth and Claw might be best described as satire. The story exposes how we often blindly follow culture and societal conventions even though they make most of us miserable. And by switching out the cast of characters from humans to dragons - the effect of these conventions is exaggerated. A family squabbling over an inheritance, the search for a life partner, and the dynamic between the monied class and the working class - all of this is spiced up when you replace humans with dragons. And the mirror, the reflection on what this means to be human, is somehow made clearer.
I would also describe Tooth and Claw as an exploration of class and gender and how societies are often structured to perpetuate a caste system where birth determines your lot in life, not innate ambition or ability. For example, one class of dragons can fly and the other class can’t fly - not because of any physical impairment. Their wings are bound and tied together to indicate that they are servants and they don’t have the freedom to fly. This has real quality of life impact for this class of dragons. It forces you to move slower, so you have less freedom of movement and it’s harder to get away from your Masters. It’s also harder to hunt on your own, which leaves you more dependent on your Masters for food.
This is an obvious parallel to how we as humans build inequality into our cultural systems by artificially binding the prospects of certain groups for another group’s benefit. And I love this metaphor. But I also love Jo Walton’s ability to balance this sort of sharp social commentary with a delightful plot that keeps you engaged. Preaching and story-telling are two different things, and it’s sometimes hard for writers to balance between the two. But she manages it nicely here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jo Walton, the author of Tooth and Claw, is a prolific Science Fiction and Fantasy writer who has published 14 novels. Her book titled, Among Others ,won the Hugo and Nebula awards - some of the highest honors for Sci-Fi / Fantasy writers. And Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2004.
Walton says that she grew up reading Victorian novels, and it’s that experience that inspired this book. Victorian novels are books whose environment is set in the Victorian era which is the time period form roughly 1837 to 1900 - when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Victorian novels are known for depicting the ideal woman as super virtuous. She is virginal, pious, polite, submissive, fragile and thus always in need of male protection. All things that men thought they wanted at the time, but all things that were impossible and ridiculous because women aren’t like that in real life.
And Walton was like, well, what if we were? “This novel,” she says “is the result of wondering what a world would be like…if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.”
So, basically, what if some of our imagined societal limitations were actual limitations coded into our DNA? What if the working class was physically weaker than monied class? What if men had powers, like breathing fire, that women didn’t? How would you navigate that world?
Now here’s a quick summary of the plot:
Tooth and Claw is a family drama about the things we loose the most sleep over at night, love and money. The mother of the family died long ago while laying a clutch of eggs. The story opens with the father, Bon Agornin, on his death bed and about to leave 5 adult children, 2 males and 3 females, without his protection. Bon’s eldest son and daughter are established in life so he states in his will that all his treasure is to be divided among his younger son and daughters. Also, his last words to his oldest son, who is a Parson of elevated status in the Church, is to make sure that his 3 younger children eat the majority of his body.
Yes - dragons eat each other here. But it’s all very proper, and there are strict rules. A dragon is not to eat another dragon unless that dragon is a weakling who they believe is destined to die anyway, or is killed honorably in conquest, or dead from natural causes. Murder is wrong - you have to be able to justify killing and eating your neighbor.
But eating Dragon flesh is important because it has magic in it that is essential to growth — to how big you get. Dragon’s are constantly sizing each other up in this story, wondering if they can take each other in battle. An extra 10 feet of size is the difference between life and death and higher or lesser status. Eating dragon flesh is also essential for a male to develop his fire-breathing ability and for a female to gain the strength she needs to survive the arduous process of producing and laying eggs.
So society is structured such that the upper classes do most of the dragon eating so they can stay big, strong and dominant. And the lower-classes will often never taste much Dragon flesh, so they stay small, dependent and submissive.
This is why Bon’s last wish - that his younger, more vulnerable children eat the bulk of his body, is so important. This may be their last opportunity to eat a significant portion of Dragon flesh and they need the magic from this meal to grow bigger to help them gain greater stature in society since they will no longer have his protection.
But this doesn’t happen. His healthy, large, wealthy bully of a son-in-law disregards this wish and hogs most of old Bon’s flesh for himself and his family, leaving only scraps for Bon’s other kids.
Avan, Bon’s younger son, decides to sue his selfish and powerful brother-in law in court. And this sets the stage for the family drama that carries the novel’s plot. Along the way we follow how this decision impacts each sibling as they leave home and try to make their way in the strict social order of Dragon society as best they can — with the men focused on their careers and the women focused on their marriage prospects.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENT
Now I’ll give you peek into the story by describing one of my favorite story moments:
Two of the dragons are sitting on a mountain cliff looking out over the fields of their home. The dragons are brother and sister Avan and Haner, two of Bon’s younger children just cheated out of their inheritance by their greedy brother-in-law, Daverak.
Haner is sad because she has to leave her comfy home and go live with Daverak. She has to leave because she’s female, and can’t defend the home. Avan realizes that, hey, isn’t it going to be awkward for you in Daverak’s house when we sue him for stealing our Dragon flesh inheritance?
And she’s like - Awkward? What do you mean? You didn’t really expect me to put my name on the lawsuit while I’m dependent on Daverak for my life?
Oh, it’s not that serious, Avan sort of says. He might be mean to you, but it’s not like he’s going to throw you out of the house.
And Haner’s like, dude, you clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a female. He can do worse than throw me out the house if I offend him. There are so many ways that he can make my life miserable, and I have no way of fighting back.
Why? Because not only is she smaller than him. But she has no claws.
I could not believe this. Every image of a dragon that I have in my head is something with big teeth, big, scary claws, and fire. But in this world, the females don’t have claws — they have something similar to human hands. And they will never, ever be able to breathe fire. So a female will almost always loose to a male in a fight. A female is risking her life every time she upsets a male dragon because if he turns on her with violence, she can’t defend herself.
So this is one example of Jo Walton exaggerating the biological differences between male and female and then exploring what that means for how they navigate society. Avan can just sue almost any male he wants. Haner must be much more strategic about how she approaches disagreements with males, always being outwardly submissive despite what she feels or thinks inside.
Now, females are just as intelligent as the males in this novel. It’s just the physical differences that are exaggerated between the sexes. And because of this intelligence women have learned to compensate for not having claws. They can still hunt and improve their self-defense ability if they learn to use weapons - which their human-like hands help them manipulate expertly. But, of course, proper society frowns on females using weapons so it’s not a popular choice. It’s so interesting that they could elevate their abilities by training and always having a weapon on them, but the desire to be proper and accepted is so strong, they choose to remain defenseless. And males in society could benefit from having an armed female companion to help them take out a larger dragon, but, again, the advantages of females staying submissive are too dear to give up easily.
But don’t worry - the female heroines in this novel are clever at navigating the narrow paths laid out for them. And even though Jo Walton handicapped them on purpose, these ladies are resourceful and figure out how to use their unique female qualities to survive and even thrive, which consequently helps the males in their lives evolve for the better. And that’s something that we human women have been doing since the beginning of time.
Tooth and Claw will take the average reader about 5 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in about 10 days, which is less than 2 weeks.
You can buy this book anywhere books are sold, but if you want the privilege of simultaneously supporting this podcast and independent bookstores then head over to our website BOOKWORMPOD.COM to make your purchase through our Bookshop affiliate store.
We also have extra goodies for you at the website including discussion questions and resources to help you dig deeper into this story.
And of course we have merch! So if you want to rock a WE SHOULD ALL BE BOOKWORMS t-shirt or drink your morning coffee in a WE SHOULD ALL BE BOOKWORMS mug, pick it up at BOOKWORMPOD.COM
That’s all for this episode. Thank you for listening. But mostly, thank you for reading. Because of you, we’re one book closer to a better world.