River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9523-8, $14.99, 176pp, tp) May 2017. Cover by Richard Anderson.
Here’s what is true: at the turn of the 20th century, a couple of American business tycoons (and wannabe tycoons) floated the idea of populating the swampy south with hippopotami. The beasts would make great eating, they thought, which means they could make some money. The whole story – and it’s a great one – was written by reporter John Mooallem for the Atavist online magazine. Go read it, if you love weird Americana and great writing: <magazine.atavist.com/american-hippopotamus>.
From that 100% true (but hard to believe) story, Sarah Gailey has spun the novella River of Teeth. Hippos, in Gailey’s world, were actually introduced to the Bayou, where they were ranched like so much livestock. Some hippos were bred for eating, some for riding, and some have gone feral. The latter live mostly in a dammed-up portion of the lower Mississippi where the villainous Travers controls the riverboat gambling and related hospitality trade.
Enter Winslow Houndstooth, our hero, who is running a caper to rid the region of the ferals. He’s getting a gang together á la Ocean’s Eleven to pull it off. As you’d expect, it gets complicated. Not only are there smoldering grudges, the feral hippos are pretty bite-y.
As it stands, River of Teeth is fine. It’s fun, mostly, and knows that a story that involves man-eating hippos can’t take itself overly seriously. In an effort to keep the pace brisk, however, it feels like a lot of all the connective bits of story were left out. Characters seem to make decisions out of the blue. Action scenes feel disjointed because it’s hard to tell who is doing what where and when. It’s a novella that would likely be a much better novel, especially if Gailey were able to include all the material that she’s clearly given a lot of thought, if her brief asides about, say, hippo breeds and personalities, were given room to breathe. She’s made an interesting world and would be well served to show and tell us more about it.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the August 2017 issue of Locus.