Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth

About a hundred years ago, the U.S. government very nearly gave the green light to a plan that would have brought hippopotamuses to the American South as a source of meat. The hippos would have been raised in the bayous, where they also would have helped knock back invasive plant species. This seriously almost happened, and I had absolutely no awareness of this bizarre chapter in American history until I read the introduction to Sarah Gailey’s alternate history novel River of Teeth (released in May by Tor.com) in which she explains this was a real thing that nearly happened. The hippo ranching bill failed to pass through Congress by only one vote.

Every Spring I get an itch for a swashbuckling, guilty pleasure novel about adventure and mayhem. Jurassic Park gave me that itch when I was twelve, and I’ve often struggled to find suitable scratches to take care of it. When I saw River of Teeth on Tor’s site, I had the local library where I used to work order it. The novel was a lot of fun, but ultimately as much of a mess as it would have been if we had actually released hoards of large, aggressive, two-ton African aquatic mammals into the southern swamps in the early twentieth century.

The first half of River of Teeth, in which Gailey establishes her world and introduces her characters, was an absolute blast, and I had high hopes for the fun ahead. Gailey shifts the entire story back about fifty years before Congress actually considered doing this in real life, and by the time the story takes place just before 1900, the South is a corrupt wasteland peopled by low-lifes, gnarled hippo wranglers, pirates, thieves, assassins, and all the other fun characters you would expect in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, except they’re riding hippos through swamps rather than man-of-wars through the open ocean. The setting is fun and the characters are eclectic and diverse. The main character is a British-Korean gay or bisexual man. Another key character is gender-nonconforming and uses they pronouns, which the other characters respect and accept without question. A pregnant Latina contract killer and a heavy-set French female pickpocket fill out the team of operatives who make up the main cast, and the intentional diversity of these characters is never advertised, they just are who they are, which is fantastic and I’d love to see more of in speculative fiction.

Unfortunately, after this excellent set-up of world and characters, the story is poorly developed and thin. The final action sequence that wraps of the novel feels like a rushed story treatment rather than a final draft, and the details of the action are illogical and often hard to follow. Gailey built such a fantastic foundation for a fun read, but the structure she put on top of it is too flimsy to support itself.

Sarah Gailey clearly has a fantastic imagination and a mischievous sense of humor, and my hope is she will develop these stories better in the upcoming books (the sequel comes out in September). River of Teeth is still fun, but it could have been more.

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