Book: “River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey
Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, May 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!
Book Description: 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.
Review: The fact that this novella is based on a true consideration undertaken by the U.S government, importing hippos to the U.S. to be used alongside cows in meat production, was all it took to land it on my TBR list. The fact that the cover features several characters riding hippos moved it quickly to the top.
And if the finished result wasn’t all I had hoped it could be, there’s still no denying the pure fun that is delivered with such a unique concept as hippo-riding outlaws!
First for the parts I did enjoy. As I said, the pure genius of this concept is spot on. I mean, who knew about the late, great hippo plan? If anything, this proves that the U.S. government was just as capable of thinking up ridiculous plans back in our earlier days as country as it seems to be now! But Gailey doesn’t just rest the historical wackiness of this plan, she brilliantly conceptulizes what this plan would have looked like if implemented.
The Louisiana territory is largely converted to extensive marshland, as hippos can only travel so far out of water. Various breeds of hippos have emerged, beyond the ones simply raised for meat. Some are faster than others, some larger, some more capable of managing longer distances on dry land. They are imagined to be a combination of a horse and a cow: close traveling companion in some cases, purely a form of meat production in another.
But, let’s not forget, hippos are very much NOT cows. They are strong, faster than they look, and fully capable of enacting their tempers on poor, unaware people who may get in their way. And, like all good plans, the great hippo importation quickly got out of control in this case, leaving wide range of the Mississippi river chocked up by an out-of-control feral hippo population, one that the notorious riverboat crime lord, Mr. Travers, has fully made use of to create his own scary, little kingdom.
Enter our heroes, tasked with a government funded mission to clear out the feral hippo population, once again opening up the river to commercial traffic. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Travers is not on board with this plan.
As I’ve said, the setting and creative use of the hippos was spot on in this story. So, too, the pacing is strong, reading like a charming classic Western adventure story, but with hippos. It’s easy to see these influences play out in many scenes, and in many ways the writing reads like a screenplay for what would surely be a super cool TV mini series.
But this strength is also a weakness. It almost reads too much like a screen play with a few beats hitting just slightly off target. There are moments when the dialogue veers a tad too close to the cheesy, and the descriptions could also seem pedestrian at times, lacking the detail and cohesion.
Which leaves us with our cast of characters. And there are many. We have the leader of our little troop, a man with a dark past tied up with Mr. Travers. A con woman. An assassin. A poisoner/munitions expert. And a man who knows the Mississippi region like the back of his hand. This is a lot of characters, all with big personalities, to be jammed into a short novella that also has a lot of story to tell. Characters would come and go so quickly that the fates that awaited them never really struck any chord. See you later, I barely knew you, I guess?
Further, Bailey attempts to right in a romantic story line, as well. And while I applaud her for her representation of this couple, their romance feels rushed to the point of unbelievability. And, in many ways, this relationship is used as a driving force for the decision-making of several of our characters, which just plays all the weaker for being given so little time to develop.
So, while I loved the conceptualization and adventure of this story, I was left wanting in a few areas. The writing style seemed to slip at points, and the numerous characters often overwhelmed any attachment I could develop for any single one, leaving some of the more important story beats to land flat. However, being a novell, this is a low stakes read, time-wise, so if you’re looking for a fun, quick adventure story unlike any other you’ve probably come across, I’d still recommend checking out “River of Teeth.”
Rating 6: An overwhelmingly large cast and some writing slips prevented me from fully committing to the Western adventure romp.
“River of Teeth” is still relatively new and is on only one relevant Goodreads list “Alternate History in 2017.”
Find “River of Teeth” at your library using WorldCat