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Literature / Tooth and Claw

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"I want to confess, Penn, before I die. Will you hear my confession?"

A fantasy novel by Jo Walton, published in 2003 and winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2004.

Tooth and Claw is an homage to Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. It follows the narrative structure and character archetypes one would expect of a Victorian-era novel, apart from the fact that the entire cast are dragons. This alone opens up an entirely different take on social structure and custom. Notably, confession and absolution are regarded a high form of sin, and it is customary to feast upon not only the deceased, but any perceptibly weaker dragons whose continued existence is regarded as a degradation of the species as a whole.

The novel follows the immediate aftermath of the death of a dragon clan's patriarch, the ensuing trouble upon dividing up his family's inheritance, and the consequences in seeking reparation thereof.

It is a considerable mistake to imagine the actual events are at all mundane based solely upon their synopsis.

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Asshole Victim: Berend is an implied Big Sister Bully (she's hostile enough towards Selendra that it's immediately deemed infeasible for Selendra to live with her after Bon dies), all-around the draconic equivalent of a Karen, and in many ways Daverak's fitting mate. Still: one can't help but wince when she bleeds out laying a broken egg.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Frelt through and through when it comes to Berend, so much so that his courtship of her was the major point of contention with her father, Bon Agornin. That he did not get to devour Agornin's eyes upon his death, being denied both his idea of revenge and his expectation of being the presiding parson, is the cause of his initial choice to support Daverak's claim to the bulk of Agornin's body over Penn's protests. It is made all the worse when Frelt later attempts to corner and court Selendra in a cramped passage, hoping to provoke her into instinctively awakening to his desires despite her conscious protests.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Used to lampshade some of the tropes being spoofed, as with Selendra and the mating blush.
  • Break the Cutie: Selendra suffers a bit of a breakdown when Frelt advances on her in close quarters, provoking her body into responding with a mating blush; the usual gold scales of a maiden dragon turned to a receptive pink. Her flustered state afterwards prevents the pink tone from fading, leading her brothers to discuss either marrying her off to Frelt or setting her up as a consort to an Exalted, in order to spare her life as a concubine. Amer brews an herbal tea that pushes her out of a receptive state, restoring her maiden gold hue, something seen as sinful by both the Church and Penn.
  • Breath Weapon: An ability manifesting in male dragons once they have attained both an appropriate age, and an appropriate size. Only the most powerful and largest dragons are able to breathe fire, though it is also considered inappropriate to use it for anything beyond personal defense and in situations where decorum demands punishment for an offense.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The other sapient species on the planet, which dragons call "Yarge," are ugly little bald mammals who will eat scorched food but not their own dead—in other words, humans.
  • Confessional: The story starts with a deathbed confession. The fact that the confession occurred is actually more important to the plot than its content — while priests are technically allowed to take confessions, it ruins their reputation if anyone ever finds out about it (as it's associated with the pseudo-Catholic Old Believers).
  • Death by Childbirth: Stated right off the bat to be all too common in the setting; then, it happens to Berend.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Tooth and Claw deconstructs the assumptions and tropes of Victorian novels by the likes of Anthony Trollope by displaying an alien society in which they actually make sense.
  • Defiled Forever:
    • When Selendra is pressured into a mating blush by Frelt's unwanted advances, her brothers consider forcing her into a marriage with her assailant or else get her set up as an Exalted's concubine, because by dragon standards she's no longer a maiden — and a dragon female who isn't a maiden or married is meat.
    • Defied by Sebeth, who was abducted, raped, and forced into prostitution; despite her coloration making her status clear, she manages to find respectable work, takes a lover, and inherits a high title and marries respectably when her dying father reconciles with her.
  • Dies Wide Open: Happens to Bon Agornin, but is implied to happen to every dragon, so that the attending parson can watch for signs of renewed life and assure death has actually taken place.
  • Dragon Hoard: Dragons have a natural instinct to sleep on piles of hoarded gold; unfortunately, one cannot do this and invest one's gold in the stock market at the same time. Bon Agornin's hoard is to be divided among his biological children upon his death, and for most dragons, this implicitly includes their corpse's own flesh.
  • Exact Words: After Frelt forces Selendra to blush, Amer gives her a tea that makes the blush go away. The church forbids the use of the herbs involved as sinful, so when questioned by Penn, Amer just says the tea was calming and medicinal, like willowbark. This isn't a lie, but doesn't actually answer the question or name the herbs. (Penn realizes what she's doing, but chooses not to push.)
  • Exotic Eye Designs: Dragon eyes are said to "whirl" during emotional moments, by conscious action or not. What this means is never exclusively expounded upon, but if the book cover art by Tristan Elwell is anything to go on, each dragon's eyes spiral their colors, and feature a spiral-shaped iris.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Dragon society matches very closely to Victorian England. Except, of course, that they're dragons.
  • Fantastic Racism: Some dragons, like the Exalt Benandi, have an almost visceral hatred for Humans (or Yarges, as the dragons call them). The poor Exalt nearly collapses when she has to meet the Yarge ambassador at a major social function.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Very evident when it comes to Bon's daughters, Haner and Selendra, versus their brothers, Penn and Avan. Both of the brothers have great concern for their sisters, who up until Bon's death had been sheltered maidens naive about the treatment of females in the broader world. Selendra and Haner's musings and solutions for their problems only reinforce their lack of understanding about draconic society, while Penn and Avan have to actively formulate viable options for their sisters so they don't wind up eaten by a more powerful dragon.
  • Gold Digger: Being dragons, this can apply to just about every character in the story, but it is very apparent with both Daverak and especially Frelt.
  • Honor Before Reason: Penn's primary dilemma is that he cannot testify as to his father's final words without revealing that he heard his father's confession and gave him absolution, which will cause him to be disgraced and dismissed from his position as a parson. Both Penn and Sher are shocked beyond measure when the villainous Daverak suggests he could just leave that part out. Penn decides that his honor forbids not answering the court's question fully if asked, so Avan's lawyer arranges to have Sher, who's ready to duel Daverak for starving Haner anyway, to call the duel in the middle of the trial, before Penn would have to say anything.
  • Humans Are Not the Dominant Species: Dragons and Humans share the planet—not always happily, but they've achieved an uneasy peace. Both have civilizations which have reached steam-powered technology and the basics of an industrial revolution. Neither one could reasonably be described as dominant—though the dragons certainly considered themselves superior and more civilized. The book doesn't really explore what humans might think of all this.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: Humans barely factor into the plot and only appear at the end. When the Exalt sees the Yarge ambassador, she's altogether horrified. In a book where the 'length' of characters is constantly brought up, the human has no length at all - barely a foot!
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Cannibalism is the order of the day, prescribed by the Church, and seems to be a necessity for any dragon to gain in size, power, and acquire traits both attractive and traditionally characteristic of their species. Fire breath only manifests after many years of eating other dragons, while the growth of wings occurs only if a young dragonet is fed enough dragonflesh early in life to promote it. Holders of an establishment over a demesne often devour the weakest dragonets of their tenant families, and eating the body of a deceased relative is considered both tradition and necessary for the remaining family to grow in power. This last fact forms the crux of Avan's legal complaint against his brother-in-law, Daverak, who goes against Avan's father's wishes that the bulk of his corpse feed the lesser of his offspring.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Tooth and claw" is a quote from "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
  • Lost Food Grievance: Daverak eats most of Bon Agornin and feeds pieces of him to his dragonets, including a weakling who isn't expected to survive and, to the other characters' sensibilities, should have been eaten itself by now. With how valuable dragonflesh is, this is counted as folly.
  • The Noun and the Noun: Tooth and Claw
  • No Woman's Land: Irieth is implied to be this by Avan when his sisters ask if they might return to the capital with him. Avan is too small in body size to feel comfortable at the prospect of having to defend them against larger dragons, and is many years away from being able to produce flame. Further dialog openly states there exists a marriage market for maiden female dragons, chaperoned by their mothers.
  • Oh, and X Dies: The very first chapter is titled "The Death of Bon Agornin".
  • Old Maid: Amer. A servant trusted by Bon Agornin's family (it is repeatedly mentioned her wings are bound no more tightly than a parson's, and on occasion she has been given leeway to fly) and introduced polishing Haner's scales. She even references the trope by name in description of herself when Selendra and Haner protest the supposed fate of married females, stating that there are worse ways to lose the golden lustre of one's scales.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Not the least of which is the fact that they have a very rigidly stratified social hierarchy and culture meshing Victorian England with European Feudalism. A prominent, polytheistic Church features parsons acting the role of community vicar, at the expense of flight prohibition through their wings being bound — though they are immune to being eaten by other dragons. Titles such as Illustrious, August, Exalted, and Eminent denote different rankings, held exclusively by males, while females are either maidens, married, or dinner. Farmers and shepherds work the land and provide both labor and food for the established family of one or more demesnes. Dragon growth and their associated characteristics are dictated almost exclusively by the frequency and quality of other dragonflesh they consume, with weaker dragons and dragonets often being on the menu as a religiously-prescribed manner of culling the population, while stronger dragons are eaten by their family upon death.
  • Pardon My Klingon: Two censored dragon swears appear. One, aimed at Sebeth by Kest, is a noun beginning with V which is implied to be a gendered slur; the other, uttered by Berend as she's dying of complications of a traumatic stillbirth, is a verb beginning with G which is likely the dragon equivalent of "fuck." We also learn that a nasty anatomical colloquialism exists; Avan cuts Kest off before he can actually say it.
  • Plausible Deniability: See Exact Words above. Penn knows full well that Amer gave Selendra prohibited herbs to make her blush go away, which he's obligated to condemn as a parson. However, as a brother, he's grateful that Selendra's entire life won't be ruined by a handsy asshole, so he accepts the polite fiction that the blush was just stress and went away on its own after she had a chance to calm down.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The very first chapter is called "The Death of Bon Agornin". Bon is the family patriarch, and his death changes everything for his children—especially his two unmarried daughters, who haven't even reached the first blush of maidenhood (a phrase that means something quite literal to dragons like Bon and his offspring).
  • Sex Slave: Sebeth, Avan's clerk, was (or claimed to be) the daughter of an Eminent Lord, kidnapped as a child, and, when her father refused to pay the ransom, forced into prostitution, until she managed to kill her captor and escape.
  • Shoulder-Sized Dragon: Dragonets, noted as quite small until a few years after hatching, assuming they aren't devoured by their elders.