River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
Published: March 23, 2017 by Tom Doherty Associates
Synopsis: 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.
Review: I downloaded this audiobook because I was hoping for a fun ride. I mean, how could it not be? Feral hippos have overtaken parts of the Mississippi and there is a gang of gunslingers running around on hippos. This should have been like a B-movie creature feature! I wanted blood and revenge and dismemberment by hippo! Unfortunately that is not what I got.
This is a pretty short novella, the audiobook was only 4 1/2 hours. But honestly it felt like I was listening for 45 hours. The first three hours are a long and tedious introduction to the members of Houndstooth’s gang. One or two of the characters also use non-binary pronouns for some reason. I am not opposed to this being used in a book but since it wasn’t explained or introduced it was very confusing. And the character’s name is Hero, which isn’t really a name at all. I had a really hard time following that because you have a not-name and a not-pronoun being used constantly. The history was tedious, I really want to get to something interesting and it seemed like it was never going to happen. It took three hours just to find out what job the gang had been hired for!
When we finally did get to the action it was abrupt and didn’t make much sense. The author shows a very strong lack of knowledge about how dams and rivers work. The lack of knowledge about hippo physiology I can excuse since it was a creature feature. But you don’t know that water naturally runs downhill? And that dams are built upstream to create larger, still bodies of water? Dams don’t have gates for boats to travel through, that is a loch. All of these questions quickly took me out of the story. It all ended with not much blood, not much gore, and a shocking lack of hippos. This was supposed to be about hippos and I feel like we hardly saw them in action.
Also, there was a short history of how hippos came to be so rampant in Louisiana at the end of the book. It explained what “The Harriet” was, which frankly I was not able to piece together through the whole novella. It might have been better to have that at the beginning. This history says that in this alternate history that Lincoln never got around to the Emancipation Proclamation because he was busy with hippo legislation. So, if the Civil War never happened and the slaves were not freed, then how did you have so much acceptance of such a wide array of people in Louisiana (which was a slave holding state)? We have Hispanic people, African American people, non-binary people, bisexual people, feminists…all in this gang and everyone accepts it, doesn’t mention it, and remembers everyone else’s pronouns flawlessly. That is a head-scratcher right there. Slavery is still a thing but we’re embracing non-binary pronouns. It was weird and nonsensical. The best alternate histories need to make sense.