Sundae Horn
Island Bookshelf: Here Be Dragons

I’ve hesitated to post this book recommendation because of its utter lack of relevance to anything Ocracoke. There’s no good reason for me to write about this particular book except that I just want to tell everyone about it.

I read it last year, then re-read it again this year, and I still loved it.

“I loved it,” I tell anyone who will listen. “I never wanted it to end. I finished it and turned back to the first page and read it again. It’s like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Downton Abbey all rolled into one.”

Are you not intrigued? Of course you are. It’s Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton and, yeah, you’ve probably never heard of it. No one’s ever heard of it. No one of my acquaintance anyway, except my sister Dana and her library friends who recommended it. Tooth and Claw does have 21 customer reviews on Amazon, with a 4.5 star average rating. (In comparison, The Help, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, has 5,699 reviews and counting.)

So – it’s a tad obscure. Invariably, when I sing it’s praises, people insist on asking what it’s about. And there’s the tricky part. Tooth and Claw is, actually, about creatures “red in tooth and claw.” It’s about dragons. Yes, really. Dragons: you know, the big scaly reptiles that fly and breathe fire and eat raw flesh and run estates and get married and raise families and ride trains and preach sermons and hire lawyers and sue each other and work in city planning offices. Really.

This is the point at which most people back away, so sorry they asked, thinking I’m crazy. That may be so (I have a couple of kids who’d support that theory), but it’s not because I love this book. I have good, sane reasons to love this book and you will, too. 

Don’t be scared off because you don’t like fantasy. Tooth and Claw is categorized as fantasy, but that’s because a genre doesn’t exist for it just yet. The dragons aren’t magic. They very realistically live in a world very much like ours, or least like ours used to be.

Basically, they live in an alternate universe that’s what a dragon-populated Victorian England might be. (Remember that reference to The Help up there? This book may be about dragons, but its characters and plot are far more believable.)

In the preface, Jo Walton writes that she came up with the idea of Tooth and Claw because she wanted to write a Victorian novel as if the professed moralities of the day were actual, physical qualities. What if you really could, just by looking at a woman, know exactly how “experienced” she is? What if you could tell, just by a man’s size, how wealthy and powerful he is? What if we really did prey on the weak?

As delightfully well-imagined as this alternative universe is, it wouldn’t be a memorable book if it weren’t for the characters. And I’ve never met any fictional humans I’ve liked better then Selendra, or Haner or Avan, three siblings who are cheated out of their rightful inheritance by a greedy and powerful brother-in-law. And yes, the dragons love their piles of gold (they sleep on it) and want their fair share of their father’s cache, but the inheritance they’re really after is physical and brutal and you’ll just have to read it.

From the opening scene of the old dragon’s deathbed confession, I was hooked on Tooth and Claw. And, with the very satisfying ending to make me so happy, I was hooked on Jo Walton. Shortly after I discovered her, she came out with a new book, Among Others. It’s about humans, but I was willing to give it a try. So, after it came out in paperback (I am too cheap to buy hardcovers), I ordered Among Others from Books to Be Red. Then I let it languish in my piles of books to be read (because it was July, people, and reading time is scarce in July, even for one so devoted as I) until my son, Emmet, found it. He loved it and told me way too much about it so that I had to cover my ears and say “La, la, la, I can’t hear you.” Then he lent it to someone else, and I’m still waiting for that person to bring it back. (You know who you are.) Meanwhile, I have a nice tall stack to get to now that the season is slowing down. If we’re all lucky, I’ll actually be able to post some more Island Bookshelf columns.

Happy reading!