REVIEW: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette, “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is a slow-burn, literary, magical murder mystery. The narrator, Mr Booth, is placed in charge of papers written by a celebrated literary figure. Among the papers, he finds a poppet, which he believes has been used to murder the author – Geoffrey Usborne Bryant. Concerned that the perpetrator of this magical crime will hurt others, the narrator sets out to discover who put the poppet in Usborne Bryant’s boxes. While engaged in this detective mission, Booth reflects on the troubled, fleeting association he had with Usborne Bryant when they were at school.

Sarah Monette’s story delicately expresses how Booth’s sleuthing allows him to come to terms with the real shape of a relationship long-past. His quest to find the poppet maker is littered with small, stabbing pains of repressed past hurts and old emotions. Booth’s conversations with Usborne Bryant’s friends, as part of his amature detective work, show that he has developed a clear understanding of how people work. However, he has never quite understood the shape of his own past with Usborne Bryant. As he slowly works his way towards the criminal, Booth untangles the small-scale, but complex, web of interactions and emotions left unaddressed since school. This story is as much a work of emotional detective work as it is a detective story.  

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is also about the importance of acting morally in the face of difficult personal feelings. In keeping with the tone of the story, Monette expresses this theme without any flashy signposts that her narrator is morally compromised, and yet still manages to strongly convey that doing what is right is not always a lot of fun. From the fact that the narrator ‘fled’ when the criminal faints at the end of the story, and the way that ‘something of my emotions bled through in my voice’ at the end of the story, the reader gets the sense that while the narrator’s quest was a success it did not lead him to any kind of satisfaction (beyond a certain understanding of his past).

Strangely, this story reminded me of a favourite Philip Larkin poem – “Dockery and Son“. There’s the similar subject matter of someone thinking back on their school days. And there’s something about the pace of the story, content to dwell on scraps from the past on its way to its destination, which evokes a similar tone to the poem; as does the simple poignancy of the story’s final line. “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” was weird, and quiet, and slow, and I loved it, readers.

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