Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Posted by DarkChaplain at 7/13/2017
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 received this one as a review copy a good while ago. Such a while, the sequel already popped up in my inbox. Various reasons, like still not having moved back into my own apartment and all manner of shenanigans around it, among others, have made me delay a lot of reading-for-review in favor of more pleasure reading to de-stress. Thankfully I finally got around to Sarah Gailey's Hippo-Western, though I do have a handful of problems with it.

The Story:
"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."

Disclaimer
I received a review eCopy of this novella, and its sequel, from the publisher.

The Review:
River of Teeth is a novella with a quite frankly amazing premise. A Hippo Western, or rather Southern? Killer Hippos in the swamps? Gambling dens, betrayal, revenge? Awesome! Sign me up.
However, upon actually reading it, I felt noticeably disappointed with the story. Part of that is due to there not being as much focus on the hippo-aspects as expected, part of it because of the way it seemed to be more about having diverse characters than a well-paced story.

I still enjoyed the novella a decent amount, but nowhere near as much as I wanted to. Let me start with probably the most controversial criticism: The diversity of the cast felt needlessly forced and contrived.
That is to say, pretty much the entire cast of relevant characters is either gay/bi, gender-neutral, fat, pregnant-and-gay/bi or, well, a straight white guy who is hated by everybody and not missed by anybody and the butt of jokes.
And I didn't buy that, at all.

This is a story supposedly set in the late nineteenth century. Transferring modern sensibilities about LGBT issues into that time period, especially in the wild US, is anachronistic at best. However, when taken in bulk like this, even excuses like "they're one in a million" go out of the window. To have an entire band of misfits, everybody covering one aspect of the spectrum, just doesn't make much sense. Especially when everybody implicitly understands and respects one character's prefered pronouns without things ever getting specified for them.
On top of that, I felt kinda bludgeoned about the head with it here. I can understand the desire for wide-ranging representation of minorities, of course. In a way, it can be seen as an admirable effort. But I've got to ask myself if it wouldn't have been better to take it easier with this. Have one character be gender-neutral, by any means. But then focus on it a tad more, rather than having to split attention between a full crew of odd characters. I certainly didn't feel like all of them satisfied my curiosity.

It also didn't help that a lot of time is spent on the protagonist, Winslow Houndstooth, blushing and being awkward around his gender-neutral love interest, Hero. Yes, they're called Hero, you read that right. Hero's a genious with explosives and basically everything else and Houndstooth never grows tired of telling everybody they're smarter than everybody anyway, despite a pretty short acquaintance. Hero meanwhile teases him a lot and I actually found them pretty sexually aggressive, all things considered.

Meanwhile, a character gets murdered and all the crew does about it is mock him, disparage him, get upset over a missed opportunity for revenge, or that they now lack a "racist white boy" to buy groceries for them. Multiple crew members have a history with the guy and nobody even showed regret over his death. That really didn't sit well with me.
This character wasn't a good person. Not in any way, shape or form. He screwed things up mightily, but he also went through hell for it, despite it and in general. For all his problems and attitude, I found his role more tragic than offensive. He was used and abused by everyone and shown in no unclear terms that he is worth naught even to his team. Heck, it is even implied that he was raped and thrown away by the woman he loved so she could satisfy her own desire for offspring and then deny him his role as a father.
As a reader, my perspective is obviously going to differ from that of the characters within the story, but seeing the end of the line actually made me angry at the crew.

In a way, the crew didn't feel professional enough, though one was back from retirement, one a compulsive gambler and the rest still active scoundrels. There was a great deal of levity in most things, more than I expected to find. Apart from poor "white boy", everybody seemed awfully comfortable around the rest, to the point where I can't even clearly tell who didn't have a romantic interest in Houndstooth at some point. Houndstooth, as the leader, didn't have much visible authority either, and certainly could've been smarter, spending ages on his revenge without pinpointing the real culprit.
It really didn't help that the true villain was so entirely transparent from the first mention on. Considering the cast's reputations, it boggles my mind that nobody figured out who really hurt Houndstooth in the past and that his plans for vengeance were a little off the mark. It is a twist you'll see coming from many, many chapters away and every appearance of the character throughout only cements his role as arch villain further. Though of course, with such a large crew of diverse misfits, the amount of other characters you could comfortably squeeze in was pretty limited anyway.

Pacing-wise, more could have been done. I liked that a good amount of time was spent on introducing Houndstooth, the fat frenchwoman Archie, and Hero by way of Houndstooth going to recruit them. Even Cal Hotchkiss got a good showing of his character flaws in a casino scene. The pregnant killer Adelia Reyes however just... appeared, conveniently. Too conveniently, if you ask me. Considering her pregnancy, she is up to astounding things though. The same goes for Archie, who was probably the most likeable character for me, despite her gravity-defying actions towards the end - you just can't stand on a Hippo charging through the flood, swinging a hammer-on-chain overhead while also being severely overweight, and then make the shot count. I don't know, the scene felt less cool than unbelievable to me.

But I digress, as per usual. The novella dedicates a chapter or two to the characters, with interludes of Houndstooth travelling with Hero and starting (or continuing?) their flirting, brushing arms and blushing. At least this also gave an opportunity to tell of Houndstooth's tragic past - which was pretty damn terrible. In fact, I wouldn't object to a novella about those events back then, with the protagonist still being a hippo rancher. The cornerstones of Houndstooth's past were very intriguing, even if the twist was on-the-nose.
The book though proceeds to talk, flirt and sit planning without getting to the point of the whole escapade. The action comes late, very late, and while it was full of neat setpieces, I can't help but wish there'd been more buildup.

I did however feel that the danger of the feral hippos was expressed rather well. Not only do they fulfill the role of alligators around the gambling den ships, but there's one scene in particular that ends pretty grimly. It was incredibly satisfying, though the casualty was kind of obvious. I was still surprised it happened as early as it did. At least it established the hippos as a legitimate problem that the misfits have to deal with one way or another.

In the end though I wish it had focused more on the Western-aspects than the romance and quirks of the crew. I had a good time seeing Archie con somebody in her introductory chapter, or Cal Hotchkiss cheating at card games. Those scenes got me interested in the setting and felt like what I expected from the time period. Those aspects felt on point for the theme, unlike the content about people's sexual orientations and gender identities. I have a hard time believing that people in that age were as accepting, tolerant, even forthcoming about things like those. It wasn't an enlightened age by any means.
That, along with a too-predictable plot, resulted in a disconnect between me and the story as it unfolded. I wouldn't mind reading more in this alternate history setting with these characters, but hopefully with less of that attention on social aspects and more hippo gunslinging. The strongest point the novella has going for it is, by far, the unique theme. I just feel that more could have been done with it to deliver a thoroughly thrilling and engaging caper.

River of Teeth on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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