Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton
There may be some gushing in this post. I have a new favorite book - the kind that inspires book evangelizing.
Honestly, books like this are the reason I started blogging. For the last few days I've been carrying this around, just absolutely enchanted, brimming over with the fun of such a clever story and such endearing characters. I kept wanting to hand it to people and say, "You should read this, it's marvelous, it's Framley Parsonage, with dragons." But I'd have met at best that all-too-familiar look of polite incomprehension (because while everyone knows Charles Dickens, or at least A Christmas Carol, nobody knows Anthony Trollope), or at worst, some version of "You read such, um, different books" (where "different" = "weird").
Actually I'm indebted to blogging for my introduction to Jo Walton in the first place. I started with her "Small Change" series after reading Jenny's review of the first, Farthing. I learned about this book from Claire's review, which included the magical words "Inspired by Anthony Trollope's works." That was enough to add a copy to my TBR shelves. I've mentioned before my fondness for dragons, and even casual readers of this blog have probably noticed my attachment to Trollope and his novels.
Initially, I admit, I didn't see a connection to Framley Parsonage. As the story opens, the Dignified Bon Agornin is dying, and his family and heirs have gathered. Bon has risen from genteel poverty to wealth and status, though the upper ranks of society cannot forget his wealth came from trade (including the new-fangled railroad that runs across his property), and that he essentially bought his title. His eldest daughter Berend has married into the nobility, and her husband Illustrious Daverak will hold the estate after Bon, as part of the marriage settlements. Bon's oldest son Penn is a parson, with a living held from his old friend the Exalted Sher Benandi. His younger son Avan, making a career for himself in the capital city of Irieth, is not yet strong enough to hold the estate. There are two unmarried daughters, Haner and Selendra, clutch-mates who dread a separation, for whom homes must be found. They and Avan inherit their father's gold, but it is not enough to provide good dowries.
While all agree on the division of the gold, there is a dispute about Bon's other legacy: his body. It is only by consuming their own that dragons grow in size and power. The upper classes frequently eat dragonflesh, because they are charged with culling the weak and unfit, particularly among the new dragonets on their vast estates, which assures their continued dominance. For most dragons though, the bodies of their parents may be their only chance of the magical dragonflesh. Penn believes that his father meant his body, like his gold, to go to his younger children (except for his eyes, the traditional parson's perquisite). Daverak disagrees, seizing a large part of the body for himself and his dragonets. Deprived of his most important legacy, Avan decides his only recourse is to take his powerful brother-in-law to court, a decision with serious consequences for their entire family. Haner is now living with Daverak and Berend, who are trying to arrange a suitable marriage. Selendra has gone to live with Penn and his wife Felin on the Benandi estate, where the dowager Exalt' Benandi is not amused by her son Sher's growing attachment to the parson's beautiful but impecunious young sister. (Unlike Mark Robarts, Penn disapproves of hunting and avoids signing his name to bills he can't afford.)
The story moves between the different branches of the family, and between the great city of Irieth and the country estates of the nobility. This story absolutely stands on its own, but familiarity with the Victorian era definitely adds to its pleasures. (I also thought there were a few Austenesque touches, like when Sher calls at the parsonage and finds Selendra with her two nephews, one of them clinging to her back, though unlike Captain Wentworth he doesn't have to drag them off.) Jo Walton gives us a fully-realized world, with a complicated history that isn't fully explained, which I enjoyed piecing together. She has a confidential narrative voice here that reminds me very much of Trollope. And she creates vivid characters that drew me into the story right from the start. It seemed clear from the first chapter that Daverak would not be the hero, and I grew increasingly concerned about Haner, living in his home, like so many women in the 19th century without resources or rights, dependent on male family members to care for her. With the somewhat bleak endings of the "Small Change" books, I was a little apprehensive that my favorite characters would even survive uneaten, but in the end as it should, all comes right, love triumphs and virtue is rewarded.
Really, this is a marvelous book. My only regret is that it doesn't form part of The Chronicles of Benandishire.