TITLE: River of Teeth
AUTHOR: Sarah Gailey
SERIES: American Hippo
RELEASED: May 2017; Tom Doherty Associates
GENRE: Fantasy/Alternate History
KEY INFO: novella, fantasy western, human-animal relations, scoundrel mission
REPRESENTATION: non-binary, people of colour, queer romance, pregnancy, gender fluidity
CONTENT NOTICES: violence, gory deaths
I picked this up purely on the ridiculously cool premise… an alternate history set in 1890s Louisiana where hippos were bred as a meat alternative, some of which became feral and needed to be dealt with by mercenary ‘hoppers’ who ride tame hippos.
And let me tell you, River of Teeth did NOT disappoint.
I absolutely adored the setting, the story, the characters, the mysteries, and of course the hippos . If we ignore the fact that this book is short anyway, being a novella, I tore through it because I literally couldn’t put it down and I would heartily recommend it!
We follow the main character, Houndstooth, as he rounds up a ragtag bunch of ‘hoppers’ to complete a mission on behalf of the US government to round up feral hippos which have been allowed to rampage, flourish and eat people, and usher them out of the bayou and out into the gulf. Sounds simple (kind of, if we ignore the potential for everyone to be eaten by feral hippos), but the mission is any but given Houndstooth’s eclectic gang and underlying secret motives. Driving the mission (and the story) is Winslow Hounstooth – dashing western type hopper who can’t resist a pretty face – and his dangerously stealthy hippo Ruby; a wonderful non-binary character called Hero Shackleby who is the demolitions & poison expert that you want on your team accompanied by their sociable little hippo Abigail; Archie Archambault (one of my fave characters), legendary con woman who can simultaneously charm the pants off of anyone whilst cracking the jaws of a feral hippo with her hammer, cross-dresser, and mama to the beautiful albino hippo, Rosa; generic villainous white boy – Cal Hotchkiss – who is as useless as a wet paper bag but has good connections; and the terrifying assassin – Miss Adelia Reyes – with her pair of hippos, Stasia and Zahra.
There are a lot of reviews which criticise the characters and feel that they are underwhelming and underdeveloped, but I didn’t feel like this at all. I really enjoyed all of the characters and felt that they really were the driving force behind this charming novella. It was also really refreshing to read a book with such a diverse cast of characters, but whose diversity wasn’t the main part of the story or the motivations of their stories… in fact, their gender/sexuality/race was just one part of their complexities as characters.
It also made me really happy to see a non-binary character in River of Teeth whose gender identity was entirely normalized and wasn’t even made a thing out of! This has resulted in a lot of complaints from other readers who didn’t understand the use of gender-neutral pronouns or Hero’s gender identity, and I know that there are other diverse readers who were upset that Hero’s gender identity wasn’t spoken about, but honestly I am so thankful to read a book where the non-binary character wasn’t used as an educational tool – they were just allowed to exist in the world just like all the other characters.
When I heard that River of Teeth was nominated for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella I was over the moon because it definitely deserves all of the recognition it’s been getting. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, A Taste of Marrow, and getting my hands on future works by Sarah Gailey!
🌻 Have you read River of Teeth and/or A Taste of Marrow? 🌻
🌻 What did you think? 🌻