Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review - Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw
by Jo Walton
2004 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

There's a lesson to be learned in books like Tooth and Claw. This novel is a book about a society of dragons and how their biology drives certain behaviors. It takes its plot from nineteenth century romance novels and justifies the strange behaviors as part of dragon biology. That's an interesting concept and yet Walton doesn't managed to turn it into an interesting book. The lesson is, of course, that ideas are not novels.

A family of dragons gathers for the death of their patriarch where a misunderstanding over the inheritance leads to conflict between most of the family and the in-laws. One unmarried sibling must live with her social climbing sister and wicked husband while another is shamed by the sexual advances of a priest. One of the poor sons sues his rich brother-in-law over the inheritance and the other son cannot reveal the truth that would resolve the case without shaming himself. Naturally all of these plot threads collide.

I suppose I should say at this point that I didn't hate Tooth and Claw. My problems with the book essentially come down to it being as bland as a saltine cracker. There's nothing that terminally annoyed me but at the same time there was nothing that thrilled me. Most of what I would consider flaws in it can be excused since they develop from the form that Walton is mimicking but at the same time she never manages to draw me in.

The prose is a good example of what I mean. Walton tells the reader directly that the plot of the novel comes from nineteenth century literary conventions but she is half-hearted in using that influence. She uses completely modern prose that's very terse and is completely lacking in poetry. That's a fine style for some stories but Walton is mimicking romance novels (that's "romance" as in the literary style not "romance" in terms of love story). Compare Tooth and Claw to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell which won the World Fantasy Award next year and you'll see how the latter book completely embraced that style and was a better book as a result.

Without completely embracing that style it makes the limitations of the plot stand out. There's lucky coincidences, multiple deus ex machinas, and a leisurely pace that completely lacks tension. Those are things that Walton took from her source along with other things that are plot contrivances with humans that she incorporated into her dragons. I can't hold these problems against Tooth and Claw since they were intentional and yet they clash due to the fact that Walton chose to use a modern style for so much of the book.

There are other problems with the plot separate from Walton's mixed signals. There's a particularly ugly attack of expository dialog at the beginning that's just terrible. Walton avoids making the rest of the exposition as bad as a son explaining dragon society to his own father lying on his deathbed but there's a lot of clumsy exposition. At a few points Walton puts out the idea in the narration that Tooth and Claw is a book by a dragon written for dragons which makes these pieces of sloppy exposition worse.

The formula that Walton chose to follow also interferes with the reader's ability to connect with her characters. Again this is not necessarily a flaw since she chose to depict dragons in a society that is very different from humanity. The problem is that she doesn't manage to connect her biologically driven caricatures back to the human reader. I can overlook character development I would consider abrupt and jumpy in a human but I never cared about any of the characters.

So with Tooth and Claw I'm left looking at a book that was an interesting idea that the execution never managed to match. It's a book that I just couldn't care about one way or the other. While my criticisms may be deflected by Walton's concepts she doesn't manage to put anything interesting beyond that concept into the book.