Feminist Dragons Read “Tooth and Claw”

I’d like to say one thing upfront, and that is that I’m borrowing this review format from the lovely Mark Oshiro of Mark Does Stuff.  I didn’t invent the wheel here, I’m standing on the shoulders of adorable professional media consumers.  I highly recommend that you check out his MarkReads site, where he’s currently reading through all of the Discworld novels in chronological order, as well as all of the works of Tamora Pierce.  His past reviews are all listed, and his upcoming reading list can be found here.  If you find that you enjoy his work as much as I do, please consider supporting him by commissioning a video of a future chapter.

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton

If there’s one thing I love about reading, it’s sharing that love with a bunch of other people anonymously on the Internet.  It’s hard to say if I like introducing people to things they haven’t read more than I like finding people who love the same books I do, but I find both of those things incredibly rewarding.  So given the tone of this site, I thought it would be fitting to start a review series of Tooth and Claw, a Victorian-style novel about dragons written by Jo Walton.  The reason I’m borrowing Mark Oshiro’s review style is because I think reading the book aloud will help people follow along, if they aren’t able to get their hands on a copy.  You can find those videos embedded at the end of the post – maybe start with those first if you haven’t read it.

This might help some of you clarify the relationships between the characters that are introduced in the first chapter:

The best I could do - I'm even confused by human genealogy.

The best I could do – I’m even confused by human genealogy, so you can imagine how complicated dragon genealogy can be.

The chapter opens on Bon Agornin’s deathbed.  Right away, Walton introduces us to the religion of dragons with Blessed Penn attending his father in his capacity as a parson, and we learn that Bon’s body will be consumed by his family according to dragon tradition.  Bon’s heart is uneasy, though, and he worries about his fate in the afterlife if he is not allowed to die without first confessing a heavy burden.  It is the religious and social custom of the dragons for the high-ranking ones to consume weaker, lower-ranking dragons in order to ensure the strength of the overall dragon population.  Bon’s father met this fate, as did several of his siblings.  By the time he was old enough to grow wings and seek his own fortune, Bon had not yet consumed enough dragon flesh (which has particular properties to help dragons grow quickly) to ensure his survival.  So he ate his remaining brother and sister, before setting off to make his fortune.

Penn is rightly shocked to hear this, as this is outside the approved guidelines for dragons to practice cannibalism.  But he also wants his father to die feeling easier, and so he risks his position in the Church by granting him absolution, a rite that had fallen out of favor and practice for thousands of years.  And after Bon dies, Penn calls his family down to feast.

Up in the Speaking Room, Bon’s daughter Berend, her husband Daverak, and the local parson Blessed Frelt have congregated to wait until Bon passes.  Berend left Bon’s cave to marry Daverak about seven years ago, and has since laid her first clutch of eggs.  All three of them hatched successfully, though little green Lamerak would be considered a weakling and eaten if he were not under Daverak’s protection.  Daverak hopes that if Lamerak eats some of Bon’s liver, he will grow stronger and change to a different color to show it.  Daverak, being lord of his own establishment, has the right to eat the weaklings of the dragons who work his estate.

The conversation is awkward and stilted, which is related to Blessed Frelt’s feud with Bon Agornin.  Frelt had wanted to marry Berend, but Bon put a stop to it.  They had not been on friendly terms since.

In the Dining Room, Bon’s youngest children, Selendra and Haner, reunite with their older brother Avan.  Avan lives in Irieth, the capital, as a member of the Office for the Planning and Beautification of Irieth.  He went to seek his fortune there, being able to do so only because he is a male dragon with wings and claws.  Selendra points this out in anger after she learns that Avan will not be able to inherit and maintain Bon’s establishment.  Avan is not yet big enough to defend his territory, himself and his sisters from the larger dragons of the neighboring demenses, which means that Selendra and Haner will have to live separately for the first time in their lives.

This is where it gets very interesting, and reminiscent of stories like Sense & Sensibility, in that Selendra and Haner are put into a vulnerable position by their father’s impending death.  Female dragons are expected to keep house and bear dragonets.  They are not allowed to have careers of their own – indeed, there are very few “respectable” professions in which they could even attempt to make one.  Female dragons have wings, but no claws to defend themselves against larger dragons.  We see from the presence of Amer, the family servant, that only high-ranking females have the “luxury” of not having to work for a living.  This is the same as it is among humans – while well-off (and usually white) women were socially barred from being able to work, poor women (and usually women of color) had to work menial labor to support themselves and their families.

When Penn calls the family down to the undercave to consume Bon’s body, there is a serious misunderstanding about how the body, and Bon’s wealth, is to be divided.  The strengthening properties of dragon flesh make it a valuable inheritance, and the old dragon had intended to leave most of it to his un-established children – Avan, Selendra and Haner.  Bon’s wealth was intended to be split among similar lines.  However, Daverak considered the flesh and the gold to be completely separate issues, and basically digs right in.

Penn protests, but cannot physically challenge his brother-in-law unless he wanted to risk his career in the Church.  Daverak appeals to Frelt to decide, and Frelt takes great pleasure in thwarting the wishes of old Bon, allowing Daverak, Berend and their dragonets to eat the majority of the body.

This leaves Avan, Selendra and Haner in a grave position – not only do Selendra and Haner have to live with different siblings, waiting to be married off, but they and Avan are denied the advantage they would have had with the extra growth from their father’s flesh.

How will this injustice be addressed?

Chapter 1, Video 1

Chapter 1, Video 2

Chapter 1, Video 3

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