written by David Steffen
Did you know that in the early 20th century the United States Congress considered a bill to populate the Louisiana bayou with hippopotamuses to serve as a new source of meat during a meat shortage? In River of Teeth, we get to see an alternate history where that law passed and some decades later there are hippo-riding “hoppers” which are something like cowboys.
River of Teeth is a new release and debut novel by Sarah Gailey and published by Tor Books. It is sort of a an alt-history Western with the feel of a heist story, and also a revenge quest, the first of a two-part book series.
The hippos have been in Louisiana for decades now, and enough hippos have escaped from ranches that the southern portion of the Mississippi River is avoided by most as it is inhabited by feral hippos.
The main protagonist of the story is Winslow Houndstooth, a hopper who had been very happy establishing a hippo ranch until he was betrayed and the ranch burned to the ground by his then-ranch hand Cal. Now he has accepted a job from the government to clear all of the feral hippos out of the Mississippi so the river can be used again. He is gathering a group of specialists to help him on the job, including Cal himself, and Houndstooth also has revenge on his mind.
The book has an ensemble cast of characters, several of which takes turns as protagonists, and most of which have their hippos as ancillary characters—each with their own personalities and distinguishing characteristics. The protagonist’s goal is a daunting one—how do you move hundreds of hostile hippos out of their own territory with just a few hippo-riders?
Given the premise of the book I was expecting the genre to be something like bizarro or weird fiction, this took some mental adjustment for me because it was solidly alternate history. I don’t think this was an issue with Tor’s marketing, because I don’t believe I really read any of their marketing apart from seeing Sarah post about the premise, and from the premise I assumed it was bizarro. What I mean by the difference is that the book started with a weird idea (which it claims is a historically accurate weird idea that didn’t get approved), but otherwise plays the book completely straight—given the initial premise, everything else about the story is a consequence of that weird idea.
The book is full of action, lots of cool character interactions and deception, and has the feel of a heist plot (a subgenre I enjoy). Lots of things to keep you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. I appreciated that the main cast of those participating in the heist were pretty evenly gender-split, including a nonbinary character which I appreciated that representation, as well as gay characters.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I was surprised at how quick of a read it was, and I’m looking forward to reading book two to find out how the story concludes.