In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
I’ve been excited about River of Teeth for a long time; not only is Sarah Gailey a great writer and a good friend, but this is a Western story about (the almost historical real phenomenon of) hippopotamus ranching. A novella… about hippopotamus ranching in the American South. If that concept isn’t enough to make you curious, I’m not sure what would be, honestly. There is one spoiler in this review, in white text after the disclaimer.
River of Teeth is an intense little novella. Essentially, it’s a caper story; Houndstooth is hired to get the feral hippos out of the Mississippi delta, and has to assemble a crew to do so. The start of the novella is the assembly of the crew and the coming together of the plan; it’s from there that Gailey throws in curveballs, ups the stakes, and really drives home the intensity of the plot outside the amazing sexual tension she brings to her writing. The plot gets ever twistier and darker, as Gailey introduces the true danger of the feral hippos in the bluntest way possible, and rather shockingly; and as Houndstooth’s past and present crash together in horrifying ways. River of Teeth simultaneously feels half its length, it’s that much of a quick read pulling one through every page, and twice it’s length, for the emotional intensity.
That emotional intensity is in part induced by the characters. River of Teeth is one of the most diverse books I’ve ever read; it has a core cast of six, of whom only two are white men, one is a nonbinary person of colour, and almost all of whom have queer sexualities, at least in my reading. Every character is fully formed and has a long-standing set of relationships with the other characters; River of Teeth is a bit of a novella of getting the gang back together, but Gailey handles that really well, and the idea of the past of the gang is one that she uses, rather than just applying for sentiment. It’s through these that Gailey injects a thread of humour into the novella; Houndstooth’s tendency to take himself too seriously, Hero’s gentle smiling in the face of… almost everything, Archie’s brilliant sly wit, all cut the tension to bearable levels while still not pretending it isn’t there. Even Cal’s sullen bastardry adds a kind of humour to River of Teeth, because Gailey empathises with him, even if he is still obviously a bastard; this novella has a lot of feeling and heart to it.
River of Teeth has one one romantic relationship, between Houndstooth, our protagonist, and Hero, the nonbinary person of colour; their romance is beautiful and slow-burn and not at all subtle, with Gailey really leaning into it and pursuing it as a wonderfully gentle, mutually pleasurable romantic entanglement. It’s a really sweet thing to read, a man and an enby in a happy relationship together that isn’t judged by anyone else in the book – part of the alternateness of Gailey’s alternate history is a lack of stigma against queer people (and indeed, no racism) – and one that is all too rare.
River of Teeth is one of those books that reads like one is coming home, really; much as the terrifying feral hippos aren’t something I’d want to encounter, Gailey’s vision of an alternate-history United States is one I’d love to live in. Especially if I got to meet Houndstooth and Hero. I really, really strongly recommend this one to you all!
Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey is a friend. Tor.com, the publisher of this novella, sent me a squishy hippo stress toy as promotional material for the novella, although I purchased the novella myself. (Also, if any of you read this and write or find fanfic about Hero and Houndstooth… please send it my way, I love them so much.)
SPOILER: At one point, Hero appears to have been killed. I almost put the book down at that point, despite how much I had until then enjoyed it, feeling almost betrayed. While they are wounded, Gailey very actively does not kill off her nonbinary character.
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