FERAL. HIPPOS. IN THE MISSISSIPPI.
What more do you need to know?
In the two River of Teeth novellas, author Sarah Gailey takes us on a tour of the Wild South of an alternate United States, and it’s a crazy good time.
In River of Teeth, we learn that the United States Congress, in the mid-1850s, considered importing hippos as a solution to a national meat shortage. True story! In real life, the proposal never went anywhere, but in River of Teeth, the Hippo Act of 1857 is just the beginning of decades-long development of hippo ranches in the marshes and bayous of the South.
Hippo cowboys are called hoppers. Some hippos are bred for their meat, and others are bred to be fast and loyal mounts for their hoppers, who ride them on kneeling saddles, brush their teeth at night, and make sure they’re never too far from a body of water to swim in.
Meanwhile, a bunch of hippos that escaped from a ranch early on have reproduced and gotten fiercer than ever, and now form the great bunch of feral hippos who terrorize the Harriet, the dammed lake that once was a passage of the Mississippi.
Got all that? That’s really all just backstory to the main event. In River of Teeth, a hopper named Winslow Houndstooth brings together a gang of hired guns (and knives) — mostly outlaws — to carry out an operation (most definitely not a caper) aimed at restoring trade on the Mississippi. The group includes a pregnant Latina with a penchant for very sharp daggers, a large French woman who’s a skilled thief and tough in a fight, the nonbinary character Hero who’s an explosives expert, and slick/shady Cal, who just obviously shouldn’t be trusted. They go up against the riverboat gangster in chief who controls the Harriet and punishes card cheats by throwing them to the ferals, and there’s trickery and double-crossing galore.
Let’s just say that there are explosions and disasters, and things are left so up in the air that by the time Taste of Marrow begins, it’s no surprise that our gang is split up into two separate groups, each believing the other likely dead but unwilling to give up the search. Much of Taste of Marrow is devoted to looking for one another, but at the same time there’s a newborn baby, marshlands and rivers being overrun by the ferals now loose of their restrictions, and riverboats being chomped to shreds by said ferals. There’s also a romantic reunion worth the way, as well as a sensibility that’s fresh and in tune with women’s bodies in a way that’s utterly new in an adventure tale.
Okay, to be more specific, while on the hunt for her kidnapped infant, the tough-as-nails former assassin has to deal not only with the stress of evading the law and plotting her revenge, but with a raging breast infection that no doubt is due to clogged milk ducts after having her nursing baby taken from her. Egads, I cringed in sympathy whenever she accidentally brushed something against her painful breasts. Been there, done that, but not while riding a hippo. (Boy, don’t I feel wimpy now.)
These books are a delight, plain and simple. I mean, the premise is just crazy, right? How can you not love a “western” that features hippos? Where a popular song played on the saloon piano is “The Wild Pottamus Rag”? And these people take their hippos very, very seriously. They raise them from hops (baby hippos), talk to them, sing to them, and seem to practically mind-meld with their chosen hippos. The hippos are fast and dangerous, but also devoted and affectionate. And with names like Rosa and Ruby and Abigail and Betsy, how can you not adore them?
“It can’t be,” Hero breathed. They scrambled up, slipping in the wet clay, and ran to the edge of the paddock. They reached right through the half-rotted wood at the edge of the water and pressed both hands to the nose of the little Standard Grey hippo that was huffing bubbles into the water there.
“It had better be,” Adelia said, “or else you just grabbed a strange hippo by the face.”
The gender fluidity and lack of barriers in relationships is quite refreshing and delightful too. Hero’s preferred pronouns are they and them, and no one ever slips up or deviates or makes an issue of it. (As a reader, I did have to re-read a couple of paragraphs when there are group scenes, as I sometimes wasn’t sure on first pass whether the “they” was referring to the group or to Hero themselves. But all good — I sorted it out).
A recurring gag throughout both stories is that various character steel themselves to ask Hero a big question, or Hero braces themselves waiting for the inevitable question that they know is coming. We readers may assume the question will have something to do with gender — and it just never is, instead focusing on mundane matters or questions about explosives or the baby or really, anything else. It a fun moment to realize that we’re being set up over and over again, and it made me giggle.
Despite the relatively short lengths of the two novellas — each under 200 pages — the characters are quite distinct and well described, and it’s really a fun batch of personalities that we get to know and follow on their crazy adventures.
If you at all have a taste for alternate history, cowboy tales, or hippos — especially hippos! — read these novellas.
Meanwhile, since starting the stories, I simply haven’t been able to get this other book out of my mind — a children’s favorite that I must have read out loud to my kiddo at least 100 times or more.
I love these western hippos, who seem to fit the River of Teeth mood:
It’s a hippo party! Good times! Crazy fun!
Don’t believe me yet? Check out the whole book, here:
But enough with the kids’ book — you really do need to read River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow! Or I’ll sic this guy on you…
River of Teeth, 121 pages
Taste of Marrow, 192 pages
Published by Tor, 2017