Yeah, okay, the blog title is a riff on a line from the movie version of Gone with the Wind, where Aunty Pitty says, “Yankees in Georgia! How did they ever get in?” Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. On to the business at hand.
I rarely read a book concept and blurb that sparks my interest enough for me to a) rush right out to buy it and b) move it to the top of my TBR pile.
But that was the case with RIVER OF TEETH from debut author Sarah Gailey. She came across a fascinating bit of American history and ran with it. In the early 20th century—about 1910—Congress was considering a scheme to begin populating the Louisiana swamps with hippos. Seriously. There was a meat shortage as people moved more toward city-dwelling, so the hippos could supply tasty meat. At the same time, hippos would eat the invasive plant species clogging up America’s largest swamp and wetlands area. The proposal to establish Louisiana hippo ranches never made it to reality, but the fact it was being seriously considered is pretty wild. You can read more about it here in this WIRED article.
So an alternative history novel about what might happen if hippo ranches had become a reality? It was a premise I couldn’t pass up. Even the title is cool. Read on to discover why, for me, RIVER OF TEETH ended up being, sadly, a DNF.
ABOUT RIVER OF TEETH: 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.
WHAT I LIKED: What I liked: as I said, it’s a helluva good premise, and I was prepared for the over-the-top storytelling it would require to carry a hippos-in-Louisiana tale. RIVER OF TEETH delivered that. I loved the hippos. They were fierce and funny and scary—and the imagery of riding hippos like horses was genius. Giving them dainty names (at least the ones used for riding) made it all the more fun. The worldbuilding is very complex for a novella, so I can see why a sequel is planned. I don’t know if it will also be a novella or a full novel.
WHAT I LIKED LESS: As much as I loved the hippos, I didn’t much care about the characters. I think part of it was the “Wild Wild West” vibe, which I hadn’t expected and don’t particularly like, complete with riverboat gambling and card sharps. That is a totally personal bias, so if you like Westerns and that vibe, you might love this book. But when I reached the 40 percent mark (thanks to Kindle for telling me this) and I still hadn’t met all the main characters or really begun the main action of this novella–ridding a waterway of feral hippos–I set it aside.
Part of the other issue I had with the book was the character of Hero, who is referred to as “they” for reasons not explained (at least not at the 40 percent mark)—is Hero a two-headed person? A conjoined twin? An alien? I spent way too much time fretting over Hero stroking “their” hair and blowing “their” nose and being irritated by it. From other reviews I’ve subsequently read, Hero is supposed to represent a gender-neutral character, so instead of “he” or “she,” the character is always referred to as “they.” Sadly, that didn’t work for me since it wasn’t explained. There had to be a more eloquent and intuitive way to accomplish gender neutrality.
Anyway, for me, this was kind of a steampunk western with hippos instead of steam. Very dense worldbuilding, but not very deep characters. I think if the author had fleshed it out into a full novel, the character-building might have been able to keep up with the worldbuilding. (Admittedly, this could have been a publisher decision rather than an author decision.)
CONCLUSION: I might go back and finish RIVER OF TEETH because it is a novella (something I didn’t realize when I bought it) and thus it’s not that long, If I do, it will be to find out what happens to the hippos. The people? Meh. Maybe the hippos will eat them.
Have any of you read RIVER OF TEETH yet? Do you have plans to? If you’ve read it, what do you think? It’s gotten a good many good reviews, so convince me I gave up too soon!