Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Narrated by John Lee
(Fantasy; original Tor, 2003; audio Audible 2014)
Victorian dragons struggle against and freely express their true nature (because Victorians) in this story about family, inheritance, purity, and socio-economic class (because dragons).
Writer Brain: 5/5. Jo Walton’s story of this book’s origin makes everything make sense. Of course Victorian dragons. It’s perfect, right down to the Tennyson reference in the title. Even the seeming contrast between “Victorian” and “dragon” makes complete sense. As a writer, the whole thing proved that what could sound like an insane, over-the-top “stunt” could turn into a fully realized novel. It wouldn’t work if there hadn’t been great characters and exquisite world-building fueling great tension to move the plot right along. Without this level of execution, the idea could have been heavy handed; a lesser writer might have needed to contain it to a short-story pastiche. But this is Jo Walton, and she did it right. Take-away: Become Jo Walton. Eat green dragons. A great idea is best presented by great skill. Cultivate your craft.
Editor Brain: 5/5. Responding as an editor to a book I listened to feels different somehow. But I’m going to do it anyway. Many tidbits sparkled to my editor’s eye ear. Much of the worldbuilding is both new and natural. The story doesn’t rely so heavily on being Victorian that the dragons might as well be stand-ins in a human-Victorian novel. At the same time, the world isn’t so foreign that the reading experience is alienating. The names and honorifics and politics and religion all feel familiar, but belong in this dragon world perfectly. These aspects with feet in both worlds make it easier to empathize with these biologically nonhuman characters. Applied to a strictly second-world fantasy, this type of grounding might mean using simpler names, Earth dialects as analogs for fictional dialects, etc. More broadly, it can boil down to the basic advice to write for your audience. Think if it as translating for your audience: using the images, language, and themes that they already know to paint a new experience. Take-away: Don’t reinvent the wheel. No one needs a whe’el when they have rolling legs, tumblers…and wheels.
Reader/Listener Brain: 5/5. I stayed up late to listen to the last three hours–and this is notable especially because I have an infant and can’t afford to lose sleep. But I smiled like a maniac the whole time. I was lost in the story and it was a wondrous thing. The narration was great–I love John Lee’s accent and am definitely looking through the rest of his catalog. And, even more of a recommendation as a reader, I look forward to returning to this text–audible or otherwise–over and over.