“River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey

19 Aug

Last year I became aware of Sarah Gailey on twitter (see here and here). Though I haven’t shared them here, I have very much enjoyed her pieces on Tor.com (she wrote a whole series on The Women of Harry Potter, starting with Hermione, and then there’s “In Defense of Villaineses”, and “Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF”).

Anyway, I finally snagged a copy of “River of Teeth,”  her debut novella, based on something that really almost happened. (Check out The Atavist piece that was the inspiration, or this Wired article for a summary.)

Beware: there’s violence, gore and death on the page. I wouldn’t say it’s lavishly described, but it’s graphic. Oh, and this is not a romance.

“River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey

This is an alternative history set in the 1890s. In this timeline, H.R.23621 (aka, the Hippo Bill) actually passed, so that hippopotamuses were imported into the US to breed–for meat–in the marshy areas of the Gulf Coast. However, shit happens (doesn’t it always?) and what we have now a body of water where feral hippos roam, a blight on the country and a danger to both the environment and the populace.

Here, have a blurb:

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.

The quick summary: a federal agent contacts a hopper (aka, hippo wrangler), with the following offer: he has a year to eliminate the feral hippos in The Harriet, a large marsh existing where present day Atchafalaya river runs towards the Gulf. The marsh, created through the construction of a damn on the Mississippi river some time earlier, is not only a blight on the landscape, what with the feral, man-eating hippo population. It’s also basically the personal territory of one Mr Travers–first name unknown–who owns and operates gambling boats there.

An agreement is reached. Our mercenary will assemble a team, consisting of himself and four other hoppers, two of them of his choosing, and the five of them will clean the ferals out, so that a regular trade route can be opened using the waterway.

The team:

  • Winslow Houndstooth, mercenary, is motivated by the money offered, as well as by the chance to exact revenge on the man who, once upon a time, burned his dream to ashes.
  • Regina “Archie” Archambault is always interested in money, along with an opportunity to use her talents as the best con artist in the country.
  • Hero Shackleby, well known demolition expert, is lured by the promise of adventure, after a year of boredom disguised as retirement, as well as the potential of leaving a true legacy–and, lets be honest, blowing things up.
  • Cal Hotchkiss, sharpshooter, gambler and cheat, will do all sorts of unsavory things for money.
  • Adelia Reyes, infamous assassin, never turns down a job.

Then there are the hippos, which are definitely characters in their own right (I suggest checking out the hippo bios here, definitely worth the read), and a few secondary characters who show some promise. And a villain, of course.

Given that this is a shorter story, I don’t want to give away much of the plot, so I’ll just say this: the writing voice is quite engaging. The descriptions of the relationships between wranglers and their mounts, and the interactions of the hippos with the landscape–from their physical needs to their abilities and uses–are rich and well rounded.

The world Ms Gailey builds is quite complex and complete, presented with exquisite economy of detail. There are lines such as, “the hippo bust of ’59” and the like, which create the idea of a shared, known history, making further explanation unnecessary.

The characters receive a similar treatment; they are all well-enough known personages at this time, and in this region, for each of them to at least be familiar with the rest of the team by reputation, if not personally. This works well given the length of the story, by creating a sense of familiarity without the need to show it over dozens of pages.

And here’s the thing, the diversity in the cast is wonderfully done. Archie is either French or Creole (not made clear), and gender fluid, and fat–and while that is mentioned a couple of time, it’s neither an obstacle nor what defines her. It’s just part of who she is. And so is with the rest of them: Houndstooth is English by birth, and bisexual, and immediately smitten by Hero. Hero is non-binary/agender, and black. Adelia is Hispanic¹, and either bisexual or lesbian; also, pregnant by Cal.

However, and this is likely due to the limits of word count, I felt that we barely skimmed the essence of who each of these people are, beyond skills and reputation. While I had not doubt at the end of the story that Houndstooth and Hero care deeply for each other, I wasn’t sure how we got there. It wasn’t the time interval, which is short, but that there’s a distance between the reader and the characters that is only breached briefly in a couple of scenes.

The caper–pardon me, operation–presents a series of neat, little problems, as does Travers, who has a particular interest in maintaining the status quo in the Harriet. As the best capers do, very little goes exactly according to plan.

I was surprised by how much fun “River of Teeth” is, despite the fact that the stakes are high and the danger is real. After all, wild African hippos are predators who share their environment with the Nile crocodile, which regularly reach up to 20ft in length. I was also surprised at least twice by things that, in retrospect, I should have seen coming (though, in my defense, the hints are quite subtle), and the twist at the end ensured that I will get my hands on the next novella, “Taste of Marrow” (which releases this September).

I hope that I will get full resolution to the character story threads there, as well as more in depth character development. And, who knows? perhaps a full HEA for my romance loving reading heart.

“River of Teeth” is a damned good debut, and a solid, well told story on its own right. 7,50 out of 10

~ * ~

¹ This is my one actual quibble with the story. It should not be this fucking hard. At one point, Adelia says, “Sin gritando.” That, I’m sorry to say, is google-translator level Spanish. If the line was either “no screaming” or “without screaming,” then the correct Spanish phrase is, “sin gritar.” If the line was “don’t scream,” then “no grites” is the correct translation. “Sin gritando” simply does not exist in Spanish. Please note: I am not familiar enough with Creole to speak to the accuracy of Archie’s speech, but after that blunder with Spanish, I have doubts.

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