I devoured–which is a hippo pun, although you wouldn’t think it was–Sarah Gailey’s book River of Teeth in about a day and a half. You would, too, if you don’t mind having rivers and bayous becoming even more nightmare-fodder than they already are.
What’s this book about? Well, it’s about hippos. And cowboys (or “hoppers”) who ride hippos. And muuuuurder. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a great concept, especially one where the introduction promises me a fair array of hats.
The hats, as with the rest of the setting and tech in the novel, were indeed meticulously done. (Personally, I loved the scene where Hero catches a hat from a ranger on a tower and then lazily throws it back like a discus–more about Hero anon.) The book is essentially a heist story, full of boiling intrigue and dangerous riverboat casinos–like Maverick with more knife fights and hippo-caused dismemberments.
Nevertheless, as difficult as it is to compete with hippos and hats, for me what really stood out was the characterization. Like all great heist stories, the novella assembles a crew of rogues, and none of these rogues are the ones you’re expecting. There’s the revenge-obsessed ex-rancher Houndstooth, who turns out to have a soft heart. There’s Hero, the nonbinary poisons and explosives expert who finds themself in love. There’s the (seven months pregnant) master assassin Adelia. It’s difficult to pick a favorite among the talented, morally ambiguous group.
But I generally pick my favorite characters based on who I’d go to dinner with, so I have to plump for Archie, the con artist and self-described “fat Frenchwoman with an albino ‘ippo”. I wouldn’t turn my back on her, and I would probably end up robbed blind, but I think I would enjoy the experience.
Gailey’s writing is wonderfully pulpy, lush and brutal, echoing for me both the tone of classic westerns and detective noir. The introduction (“worth it for the hats alone”) and the appendix (“Lincoln promised to solve the hippo problem, but some things came up”) are as much fun as the text.
If there’s one thing to complain about, for me, it’s the ending, which felt a bit rushed, almost as though the book had ended during a midpoint climax or had been sliced in two. While I know there’s a sequel novella out, I think I would have preferred to be able to read the whole story in one volume. However, there’s a lot of interesting things being tried at the moment with story and publication structure–Annihilation, for example, and the other books in its trilogy–so I suspect that Gailey and her publishers know exactly what they’re doing.
In short: do you like westerns, hippos, explosions, having your expectations subverted, and muuuuuuurder? Do you have four bucks, a Kindle, and room in your “I fell in the river” nightmares for more creative types of death? Pick up a copy of River of Teeth, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.