Once upon a time, the US government considered cultivating hippos as an alternate meat source. Fortunately for us, this plan never came to fruition in the real world. However, Sarah Gailey saw the missed potential in this terrible scheme, and brought us this fictional version in their novella, River of Teeth. Picture it: the mid-1800s, but with hippos in and around the Mississippi. Imagine ranchers riding specially bred hippos on their travels. It’s ridiculous, but so much fun.
Leading the caper, we have Winslow Houndstooth, a British former hippo rancher with a score to settle and a fondness for both pretty ladies and blue-eyed boys. Then we have Regina Archambault, a fat French con-woman who leaves broken hearts and lightened pockets across the south. Soon, we add Hero Shackleton to the crew, a non-binary black munitions expert who has tried to retire, but found it dull. Rounding out the crew is Cal Hotchkiss, Houndstooth’s former ranch hand, and Adelia Reyes, an Hispanic assassin. One of the great delights of this novella is that none of these characters have to hide who they are. Only one character gives them a hard time for the their weight, gender, or sexual orientation, and he’s set up to be unlikable from the start. And they mostly just ignore him, and continue being their amazing, badass selves. It’s a relief to read a fun heist with such a diverse cast of characters.
This takes place in a harsh, mercurial world. There’s a lot of vigilante justice here, and people getting what’s coming to them in the most brutal ways possible. I would not want to live in this world, but it can be cathartic to read about. Protagonists make morally gray choices, as you would expect in a heist, and it can get rather violent. There’s more than one moment that made me wish I could look away. It suits the story being told, but if you prefer your bar fights to be bloodless – or least for the violence to be described in broad strokes, without lingering on every cut and drop of blood – then consider yourself warned.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the hippos. Each character rides a hippo, and they have almost as much personality as their riders. Truly, the relationships between the humans and the hippos are some of the sweetest, purest, animal/human connections that literature has to offer. The purity of that love does a lot to balance the violence. So do some of the human relationships, to be honest. There are some wholesome friendships here, and also a surprisingly sweet queer romance, that I would have loved to see developed more.
The ending leaves a number of loose ends dangling, to be picked up in the sequel, but I found it to be a satisfying resting place anyway. The caper for which they have been hired is complete, even if the manner of its completion had unforeseen consequences. But nobody is left on the brink of death – by the last page, you have a pretty good idea of who lives and who dies. This is a great choice for somebody looking for a fun, easy read with a diverse cast of characters.