Novella Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Alternate History
Series: Book 1 of River of Teeth
Publisher: Tor.com (May 23, 2017)
Length: 152 pages
Fun fact: The hippopotamus is widely considered to be the most dangerous mammal in Africa, responsible for more human fatalities there than any other large animal. Although they don’t look very threatening, they are extremely moody and territorial, often known to attack boats in the water or people on land with little to no provocation. Another fun fact: Back at the turn of the 20th century, U.S. Congress actually considered a bold initiative to import these animals to the bayous of Louisiana, in the hopes of creating these “hippo ranches” to solve the nationwide meat shortage as well as the growing ecological crisis caused by the invasive water hyacinth.
Obviously, this wild scheme never came to pass. But you just have to wonder, what if it had?
Happily, author Sarah Gailey was awesome enough to oblige us in River of Teeth, her alternate history novella envisioning an America that might have been if the “American Hippo Bill” had been passed…along with an added few hitches, of course—like, say, if about a hundred hippos had broken loose somewhere along the way, resulting in an out-of-control feral population making safe travel along the southern waterways nigh impossible. Taking place in the marshlands of Louisiana, the story follows a diverse group of hippo riders who come together to pull off a caper—or rather, I should say, an operation—to help the U.S. government rid the Mississippi River’s Harriet section of its feral hippo problem once and for all.
However, as the leader of the group, former hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth has other plans. Gathering a team that consists of Regina “Archie” Archambault, a corpulent master thief; Hero Schackleby, a gender-neutral demolitions expert; Adelia Reyes, a very effective (and very pregnant) killer-for-hire; and Cal Hotchkiss, a hard-drinking, cards-cheating gambler who just so happens to be the fastest gun in the west, Houndstooth is prepared to pull a few strings in his contract in order to accomplish his true goal of revenge. Floating somewhere on the Harriet is the riverboat casino where he will find Travers, the ruthless businessman who took everything from him. Houndstooth means to see his enemy pay—that is, if only he and his allies can somehow survive the never-ending barrage of obstacles, including double-crossing backstabbers, huge explosions, and a river full of killer hippos.
Hands down, the best part of this book is its concept, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just so damn cool! To me, this is what speculative fiction and especially alternate history is all about: taking an idea inspired by a real event—in this case, Congressman Robert Broussard’s proposal of the hippo ranching bill in 1910 (that fell just short of being passed, alas)—and running with it, creating a wonderful new world full of potential. I simply love picking up books like these, knowing that anything is possible. Not to mention, hippos are a great subject; for one thing, they’re fascinating creatures, and two, many people underestimate just how dangerous they are, but Gailey does both these points justice by highlighting the environmental, cultural and societal impact of these animals every chance she gets in her story.
My major complaint, however, is one that I often have with novellas—River of Teeth was just too short, preventing anything from being fully developed. World building, plot elements, and characters all felt a little sparse, leaving me worked up by the end, yet still feeling strangely unfulfilled. Part of me wishes that the story had provided more background information behind the process of hippo farming, or hey, maybe even a mention from someone on what eating hippo might be like (I’ve heard that hippo steak is delicious, but don’t take my word for it). I was also disappointed in the characters. Save for maybe Archie, whose charm I found irresistible, I felt no real connection to or interest in the rest of the cast. Thing is, while I love diversity in my books, I am less enamored with “diversity for diversity’s sake”, which often leads to characters becoming defined by labels and not who they really are, leaving their personalities themselves paper thin and forgettable—especially in the case of this book, where a good number of them are killed off or taken out of the picture rather quickly in a short period of time. It’s worth keeping in mind too that we have a relatively large cast for a novella, so opportunities to get to know each of them well were already limited.
However, as you can probably tell from the positives I highlighted, River of Teeth was still a book I enjoyed. While it didn’t draw me in as much as I thought it would, at no point did I find the story slow-moving or boring, and I can also see the world and characters becoming more fleshed out as more books are added to the series. Sarah Gailey has written a fun little adventure with lots of potential, and already I am eyeing the sequel Taste of Marrow with great interest.