Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton has been described as “Pride and Prejudice, but dragons”. There is no more apt description than this, though I also see a lot of Dickensian influence. Additionally, the primary romance is not as antagonistic as Elizabeth and Darcy are initially. I’m counting this as my bingo square for Red because the cover is, in fact, very red and because the colour actually plays a role in the book.
The plot centers around a family of dragon gentility after the death of their father and the legal battle that ensues after the father’s wishes are not met and the younger siblings are not given their fair share of their father’s body to consume–this being important because consuming dragonflesh makes for stronger and larger dragons, giving them an edge in almost all dragon affairs. For male dragons, it is important to be large and strong in case you need to fight battles; for females, because producing eggs is an extremely physically taxing affair. The plot follows all of the five siblings to varying degrees, though their stories are interwoven. (Small spoilers for the first quarter or so of the book follow).
The main characters in the novel are the two youngest daughters, Silendra and Haner. Silendra’s story is the most romantically-focused. Untoward advances towards her are made early on, causing her to ‘blush’ (the dragonic equivalent of losing her virginity) through no fault of her own. Their old nursemaid whips up a potion to restore her to her virginal golden, with the consequence that she might not be able to blush and thus achieve the proper matronly red colour at the appropriate time when she does fall in love and get married. (The inability to do this would be a societal stain upon her). Haner’s story is much more social-justice oriented: upon going to her bullying brother-in-law and overly proud sister after her father’s death, she becomes increasingly concerned about the welfare of lower-class dragons, who in cruel households are often eaten for simple mistakes or for being too weak.
Perhaps the main story arc (at least, the one that drives the plot most) follows the youngest son Avan in his legal battle against his brother-in-law. Avan works as an up-and-coming law clerk in the dragon-equivalent of London, where he also lives out of wedlock with his secretary, a pink–but unwed!–female dragon. As for the other siblings, the eldest sister, Berend, is a successfully-wed society dragon producing several offspring for her husband, and the eldest brother, Penn, is a clergyman who takes Silendra to live with him and his wife Felin (who was my favourite character). They also have roles to play in the overall narrative, especially Penn, who is wracked by guilt by his father’s deathbed confession.
I don’t usually spend so much time introducing the plot in reviews, but I think mentioning the main plotlines is important to judge what kind of novel it is, and also to point out that this is not just a human story with dragon characters, but that Jo Walton has actually crafted a world with dragonic concerns–like eating other dragons. It is both very entertaining and a good story in its own right, as well as showing quite nicely how the borders of the fantasy genre can encompass such variety. I’ll definitely be recommending this one for a while to come.