I wanted to like this book so much.
So, here’s the premise of River of Teeth, and tell me if you aren’t chomping at the bit to read this motherfucker after you hear it: It is a true fact that in the early 20th century the US Government actually planned to import hippopotamuses into the delta of the Mississippi in order to raise them for meat. This didn’t actually happen, because are you kidding, of course it didn’t.
In River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey backs that timeline up by a hundred years or so and then gives us an alternate history where it actually happened.
And, like, you’re in, right? Look at the damn cover. Cowboy adventures on hippos. How could you not go buy this immediately and read the hell out of it?
And for a while, it’s cool. Hippos have been in the US for long enough that we’ve domesticated them into a few different breeds (I’m good with the idea of breeds; less so with the “domesticated” idea, but whatever) and so there are, like, meat hippos and ridin’ hippos and one that, honest to God, appears to be some sort of ninja stealth attack hippo, and each of the main characters has their own hippo that they have a relationship with and ride on and are bonded with.
So, that premise gets you through about the first third of the book, and you’re still super excited, and then the cracks start to show and it becomes pretty clear that the utterly fantastic premise was all the book had, and maybe it was worth reading anyway, I think? But the following things all happen:
- The hippos get sidelined for big chunks of the book because you can’t get hippos into buildings and such. The hippos are cool! Make this a road adventure so that the hippos are around more often!
- The book is weirdly structured; the author was clearly trying to write to novella length and had a bit more story than that so the actual Big Adventure part is sort of unfocused and gets resolved really abruptly. There’s also a weird scale thing happening where it’s never clear at all just how much open land they have to work with; it could be anything from a few acres to several square miles. That’s a big difference when you’re hunting hippos!
- Speaking of: the Mad Caper is almost an afterthought for most of the book. There’s a big Putting the Band Together sequence that is well-written and neat until you realize that it’s never really clear why any of these characters are necessary for the Caper to occur, or for the most part what their roles are intended to be– especially once the Caper occurs and it turns out to have been the least complicated plan of all time.
- The main character Wants Revenge from a certain other character for, no shit, burning his hippo ranch to the ground and killing all his hippos. Cool! Motivation! And then a third character kills the object of revenge at about the 2/3 mark of the story for cheating at cards and well I guess that storyline can sorta fizzle. Sure, things like this might happen on earth, but they’re not narratively very interesting. There’s a reason the bad guy never randomly dies of a heart attack or a car accident halfway through the story.
- One character is inexplicably hugely pregnant. The parentage of the child is kept in the dark until it is Suddenly Revealed, at which point no one cares, because we don’t know these characters so why does it matter who they were banging before we met them? Also, the pregnancy is ignored whenever convenient.
- Another character is French, which is fine, except the accent she’s written with is ‘orribly annoying and involves huge numbers of apostrophes.
- And then there’s Hero. I feel crappy complaining about Hero, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Hero is… trans? Maybe? Nonbinary, somehow? Genderqueer? Unconcerned? Who knows, but Hero is referred to with plural pronouns throughout the book, including by characters who have never met them prior to referring to them as “they.” And we are never told why. Now, I have an entire race of characters in my Benevolence Archives book who don’t conform to gender binary and use specialized pronouns, so maybe I ought to shut up here? But the combination of constant plurals with a deliberate refusal to ever actually describe Hero is insanely annoying. Hero even gets into a relationship with the main character at one point! They have sex, I think!
And here’s where I break away from the bullet points, because they’re going to become unwieldy: there’s nothing wrong, obviously, with including nonbinary characters in your book. I recommend it, in fact! My favorite book of the year so far features a trans main character! But give me some way to hook into these characters, or at least to picture them. And as much as I hate to complain about historical accuracy in a book about people riding hippos, I feel like no one in the mid/late 1800s who has never met Hero is going to look at Hero and automatically call them “they” without even asking any questions. Similarly, the love relationship: Hero flirts with the main character throughout the book and they eventually end up in bed together. Cool! Except that when they meet Hero immediately tries to poison him. It’s not so much “trans (maybe!) character gets a love interest” that I have an issue with– that part’s fine– but I don’t know how many romantic relationships begin with attempted murder.(*)
I’m gonna keep an eye on Sarah Gailey, guys, because the cool things about this book are really cool, and the writing in general is fast and snappy and it’s a fun book. The issues with it are mostly issues of authorial control; I feel like if she had been writing a full-length novel a lot of the issues might have gone away. One way or another, I’m disappointed with this one, but I’m pretty sure I’m still in for her next book.
(*) Okay, I’ve referred to Rhundi holding Brazel at gunpoint on their first date repeatedly in the Benevolence Archives books. But y’all haven’t seen the whole story yet.