When I first read the description of this book I was skeptical. And perhaps suspicious. Definitely intrigued. This attempts to rectify the main problem of Victorian novels, namely, the lack of dragons. Your reaction is probably fairly similar to mine. Victorian novel...with dragons? Well, I have to say that I was entirely won over, and came out of the book wondering why no one had ever put those obviously needed dragons into a Victorian novel before. (I was reading this at the same time as Sense and Sensibility, and trust me, that made for a weird mix.)
Are you wondering whether or not I have lost my sanity? Well, I'm extremely low on sleep, and yesterday put one of my sisters on a plane for New Zealand, where she is going to live, so there is that. But I finished this book a few days ago, before the insomnia and emotional leavetakings, so I think I'll stand by it. Jo Walton makes this work, dammit. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Among Others, with which I had some issues.
It really is weird how well this works, and I think it does so because Walton has such a keen grasp of those issues at the core of many Victorian novels, and manages to translate them quite brilliantly into a society of dragons. Quarrels over inheritance involve both dragon hordes and whether or not the body of the deceased counts as part of the treasure. The cult of true womanhood and the importance of virginity is vividly portrayed by the tendency of these female dragons to turn pink when they are affianced. Or at least, turned on. And it can't be undone, creating a visible sign of honest affianced love, or disgraceful wantonness. (Or can it?) The exploitation of the poor comes to life when dragon lords literally eat the dragonets of the poor, for their own health.
All of these are deftly explored. The underlying metaphors are so solid that this book sucked me in entirely. It's not done with an anvil, but they are slowly elucidated, and knowing Victorian novels, things fall into entertaining place without needing overly complicated explanations. Just like Buffy uses monsters as metaphors to explore teenage issues, Walton uses dragons to tease out certain aspects of Victorian society and explore about them without needing to talk down to her readers.
The grand old dragon, Bon Agornin, has died. His will states that his three youngest children share his treasure, with his older children and the aristocratic mate of his oldest daughter, taking only a token piece of gold for their part. The aristocratic bully does not consider this to apply to the body of his father-in-law and proceeds to devour most of it, depriving the three youngest of their rightful share, and thereby, their future growth. (Dragons depend on eating other dragons to grow bigger.)
The son so deprived launches a lawsuit against his brother-in-law, sundering the family. The other brother, a cleric, does not want to be called to give evidence in the trial, due to some ecclesiastical irregularities about his father's last few minutes. One of the two unmarried daughters is accosted by another cleric, causing a blush, and forcing her brothers to look to quickly marry her off before she is disgraced. With the help of one of her maid's, she manages to dispel the blush with the help of certain herbs, but will they have further effects upon her?
And when the two sisters are torn apart, will either find love? Will the one who goes to live with her sister, now in her dangerous second clutch of eggs, manage to survive in the household of her avaricious brother-in-law, whose culling of weak dragon stock may have more to do with his appetites than his duties?
This is a strange book, but such a thoroughly delightful one. And when I turned from it to Sense and Sensibility, I was wistfully wondering where the dragons were.