“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.” (via Goodreads)
I’m a sucker for a good alternate history, especially westerns. So it’s should be no surprise that I was super excited to read River of Teeth. The novella is based on a real plan to import hippos to solve the two-pronged meat crisis of the high cost of beef and a demand that vastly outweighed the supply. Of course, in our world that plan never came to fruition, but Sarah Gailey uses the premise that it did to create a fascinating, violent world.
In the story, the Mississippi River was dammed to create a vast series of marshes known as the Harriet. When a stupid accident lets a bunch of hippos loose in the Harriet, a few generations later they have become vicious ferals who kill just about anything that crosses their paths – birds, humans, even each other. To keep the feral population somewhat controlled, the Bureau of Land Management established a massive gate to lock them in (hippos can’t travel long distances on dry land, which forms the other barriers). The only other human with property on the Harriet is a sadistic man known only as Travers. Which brings us to the start of the story.
Gailey’s crafted a rolicking alt-hist western so much bigger than it’s page count belies. There’s a reason River of Teeth won a Nebula. It’s a thrilling story with a creative premise and a unique cast. It feels genuine and sincere in characterization and plot. I enjoyed every element of the story, from narrative structure to thematic elements to character development, and beyond.
River of Teeth centers on Winslow Remington Houndstooth, leader of the hippo caper, con-artist Archie, demolitions expert Hero, grifter Cal Hotchkiss, and pregnant hitwoman Adelia Reyes. Houndstooth takes a contract to remove the ferals from the Harriet, and concots what he insists is an operation (not a caper!) that lets him both score a huge payday and exact revenge on the men who nearly destroyed his life.
As great as the plot is, the characters are even better. Houndstooth’s crew is comprised of Archie, a full-figured woman (some of the time), non-binary Hero, and Houndstooth and Adelia who are both shades of queer. There’s racial diversity as well. More importantly, nearly everyone – including the terrible Travers – is chill with diversity. All but one character easily accommodates everyone’s identity with no issue or pushback. It’s sooooo refreshing to be in a story where diversity is the default rather than something that must be explained or justified.
So yeah, River of Teeth is awesome and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. Consider me a Sarah Gailey fan for life.
“Well.” Hero sat back, folding their hands in their lap. “It sounds like you’ve got quite a team already. Without me. So why would you need me, Winslow Houndstooth? Why do you want to pull me out of the retirement I’ve been so thoroughly enjoying?”
Houndstooth stood and turned on his heel, leaning his back against the porch rail. His hand rested next to the untouched sweet tea, which had begun foaming softly. He looked down at Hero, his gaze unwavering.
“Because,” he murmured. “I think you want it.”
Hero was thankful that their skin was dark enough to conceal the hot flush that was climbing their neck.
“I think you’ve only been retired for a year, and already, you’d poison a stranger just to break up the monotony.” Houndstooth knocked the sweet tea off the porch rail. It hissed as it ate through a rosebush. He leaned forward, still holding the porch rail. “I think you’d enjoy working this job a lot more thoroughly than you’ve enjoyed sitting in that rocking chair.”
Thanks to Tor.com Publishing for sending me a review copy.
Read an excerpt of the first three chapters.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or get it from your public library.