Some fantasy novels are epic, with rich plot lines, 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 very interesting, though often the plot overshadows the characters. Other fantasy novels are light and fluffy comedies where nothing much happens but they make you laugh your tail off.
Finally, there are those fantasy novels that really defy description. Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton. As the dust jacket says, this is a novel that 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 honour and love. It's a real treat to read.
The plot description doesn't sound very interesting. I think that's because this sort of plot usually does nothing for me. It does sound rather dull, doesn't it? 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. However, I'm glad I did, because I think it transcends the genre and becomes a nifty little (256 pages) 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, Walton is good enough that I trust she hit it pretty good.
The conceit that dragons are living in a Victorian-style society is simply a wonderful concept that Walton does a lot with. She adds the proper-sounding customs and traditions (dowries, arranged marriages, family honour and the like), and then mixes that with 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 simply add to the fantasy element but still blends favourably 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 40 feet long.
Walton tells the tale with the gentleness and humour that, I imagine, most Victorian novels have. Her prose is again wonderful, making the genre conventions her own and 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, though I don't know), bringing a humour aside or clarifying a point that the reader may have missed. I thought this would 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. Thus, it is not a page-turner, and 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 does a great job with all of these characters, making us care about them and 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, washing 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 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.