SARAH GAILEY River of Teeth. Reviewed by Robert Goodman
Gailey has delivered a fun, fast-paced, wild-west-style romp set in a possible America.
Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth has a killer alternative history premise – a riff on an actual plan by the US Government in the early 20th century to import and farm hippopotamuses:
The idea was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana’s bayous. The hippos would eat the ruinously invasive water hyacinth; the American people would eat the hippos; everyone would go home happy. Well, except for the hippos. They’d go home eaten.
The plan never went ahead but Gailey has made it a reality, moving its conception back 50 years. The action of this novella is set in the 1890s where hippos (known as hops) are indeed farmed for their meat. They are also saddled and ridden by ‘hoppers’ as a key form of transport in America’s swampy south. The narrative relies partly on the fact that hippos are the biggest killers in Africa:
Houndstooth patted Ruby’s flank and she let out a little rumble … He rubbed a loving hand over her blue-black flank, feeling the muscles shifting under the skin. Ruby was sleeker than most hippos, but not by much. Though her livestock cousins had been bred for marbling, her sub-Saharan ancestors carried little excess fat. Their rotund shape belied merciless speed and agility and Ruby was the apex of those ancient ideals: bred for manouverability, fearlessness and, above all, stealth.
Taking this as the setting, the plot of River of Teeth is a Western heist caper (or ‘operation’ as protagonist Winslow Houndstooth keeps insisting in an odd running gag). Houndstooth, an ex-hippo rancher and gun for hire, is commissioned by the US Government to clear the lower Mississippi of feral hippos. This area of the United States, known as the Harriet, was created by damming the Mississippi and creating a vast swampland which has become home to vicious, man-eating hippos. It has also become the domain of Travers, the moustache-twirling villain who runs gambling riverboats on the Harriet and throws his enemies to the feral hippos who wait by the boats to be fed:
Not quite a lake, not quite a marsh, the Harriet was a triumph of engineering, but the ferals trapped within it rendered it a national embarrassment. The riverboat casinos that dominated its surface did little to alleviate the distaste with which most of the country considered the whole region.
In the tradition of heist stories, Houndstooth gathers a team of reprobates with suitably ridiculous names including con-artist Regina Archambault; Hero Shackleby, a sexually ambiguous demolition expert; Adelia Reyes, a hired killer who also happens to be wanted to the law, and Houndstooth’s ex-partner Cal Hotchkiss, the fastest gun in the south, now also working for Travers. But also in this tradition, Houndstooth is after something more – revenge for the destruction of his lifelong dream of a hippo farm – something he is sure Travers had something to do with:
‘I was the best breeder in the country, you know. Back before my ranch burned. Could have been the best in the world … And look at me now. What do I have to my name? A bedroll and a grey hat and Ruby.’
River of Teeth is overall a lot of fun, from the opening scene, which has Houndstooth both seducing a government agent and riding off into the sunset on his black hippo Ruby, to the explosive and double- and triple-crossing denouement. But it is also too short. At novella length, characters come and go in the blink of an eye and most of the narrative is either expository dialogue or plot. There are twists and reveals but never enough time to build them up or give them any weight. And the finale, or at least what anyone was trying to achieve by it, while exciting, does not really make much sense.
Gailey has a great premise with River of Teeth, and has delivered a fast-paced wild-west-style romp in the world she has created. But the book often feels like a sketch or plot outline rather than a novel. World-building requires time and space and if readers are to be asked to buy into that world and care for characters they need to be able to spend a little more time with them. The end of the book opens up a world of new possibilities for the hippo-filled, turn-of-the-century United States and a sequel entitled Taste of Marrow is already on the way. We can hope that next time Gailey returns to this world she will be able to spend a little more time there.
Sarah Gailey River of Teeth Tor 2017 PB 192pp $22.99
Robert Goodman is an institutionalised public servant and obsessive reader, who won a science fiction short-story competition very early in his career but has found reviewing a better outlet for his skills. He was a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards for 8 years and reviews for a number of other publications including Aurealis and the Australian Public Sector News – see his website: www.pilebythebed.com
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.