(review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/24794.html)
I've never heard of Jo Walton, let alone of this book, so when I ordered it online to read for the Women of Fantasy Book Club, I had zero expectations. Hell, I didn't even read the summary; I had no idea what the book was even *about*. I just bought it for the book club and let myself be taken completely by surprise.
For the most part, I'm glad I let myself be surprised. This was an all-around decent novel that I enjoyed quite a bit.
When I said that I had no idea what this book was about, I wasn't kidding. It took for almost a whole page for me to realize I was reading about dragons. Literal, walking, talking, Victorian-esque dragons.
I was a little confused.
Needless to say I got over that pretty quickly and just let myself be carried on this Jane-Austen-meets-dragons romp that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.
One of the things that impressed me the most about this book was how Walton took staples of Victorian society -- class hierarchy, the role of females, and courting -- and managed to apply it to dragons, but tweaked these traditions in such a way so that it would make sense with dragons. For example, when a female dragon is touched or cornered by a male dragon, they "blush" and turn pink, which basically binds them to that male and they have to marry them. Unmarried blushing dragons are basically compromised and are seen as whores in their society. It's really imaginative and worked really, really well.
The writing style is of course very reminiscent of the Victorian style, and as such reads a lot like a Jane Austen novel. I've read somewhere as someone coining this kind of novel as a "fantasy of manners" which I like a lot, as it really encompasses what this novel is all about. One of my favorite things about the writing style was the narrator itself, who had a wry sense of humor. One of my favorite examples are the chapter titles, which by the end of the novel are pretty humorous, such as: "The Narrator is forced to confess to having lost count of both proposals and confessions". Heh.
Walton also does a good job of humanizing these very non-human beings, but still giving them a very pronounced dragon culture. The emotions that these beings feel is very human, and you can't help but root for them and hope they prevail. That was another thing actually; despite the characters for the most part very black-and-white (the good people are GOOD and the bad people are BAADD), I was never annoyed by this, and I definitely wanted to bad guys to go down and the good ones to make it through unscathed. This usually rubs me the wrong way in novels, because it usually ends up in the characters, good and bad, lacking depth, but that never felt like the case here. The ending is all very neat and tidy, but it again felt like it was paying tribute to the Victorian novel, and it still did so in such a way that it didn't feel fake or contrived or unsatisfying.
Final Verdict: I was very wary of this novel at first; I wasn't sure how Walton was going to pull off having dragons replace humans in a Victorian-esque novel. It sounds very strange and almost gimmicky, but Walton makes it work, and does it really well. Instead of transposing human ideals and traditions onto dragon characters, she builds a whole new culture for them that's heavily based on the Victorian era, which results in something very familiar that still feels new and fresh at the same time. It also helps to make these dragon characters still be relatable, despite not being human at all. A definite recommend from me, especially if you're a fan of Victorian literature. :)