Pearly White: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

If you’re a regular Tor.com reader, you’re already familiar with Sarah Gailey and her brilliant Women of Harry Potter series, which received a deserved Hugo nomination for Best Related Work. Gailey also earned her way onto the John W. Campbell Award shortlist, which recognizes the best new voices in science fiction and fantasy. Remarkably, Gailey did so without ever having published anything longer than a short story. One quick look at her resume, though—I recommend starting with “Of Blood and Bronze” (Devilfish Review, 2016) or “Homesick” (Fireside, 2016)—and it’s clear why she’s included alongside other terrific authors like Ada Palmer and Kelly Robson. Gailey’s stories maintain a razor-sharp balance between amusing and emotionally affecting; her characters are interesting and unpredictable; her prose is brisk, her dialogue sharp. Gailey’s debut novella, River of Teeth, has everything that makes these short stories great, with the added benefit of room to breathe.

As Gailey explains in the book’s foreword, “In the early twentieth century, the Congress of our great nation debated a glorious plan to resolve a meat shortage in America. The plan was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana’s bayous.” This, of course, never came to pass—however, that didn’t stop Gailey’s imagination from running wild. River of Teeth is set in speculative America where this harebrained plan played out, and now feral hippos prowl the Harriet (a dammed up portion of the Mississippi River). Hired by the federal government to attend to the feral hippo situation, Winslow Remington Houndstooth sets out, Seven Samurai-style, to gather a team of criminals specialists, each with a particular set of skills.

Some spoilers ahead.

“So, we’re getting the ferals out of the Harriet because—why?”

“Trade route,” Houndstooth murmured without looking up. “The dam is crumbling already—there’s a huge crack down the middle, and it’s less stable every year. The plan as I understand it is to tear it down and reopen the Harriet to trade boats that need to get down to the Gulf. But the boats won’t go through if there are ferals eating their deckhands. So, they’ve got to go.” (Ch. 4)

Waiting on the other side of this caper? $8000 in United States gold. But that’s not the only reason Houndstooth took on such a risky job. No, “he took it for the money, and he took it for the revenge.”

In a book that’s so novel in its approach to world building, with such a hilariously compelling macguffin as hippopotamus cowboys (hippoboys?), it’s really the complexity of Houndstooth’s motley crew that really sells River of Teeth. They’re society’s outcasts—some by choice, some by circumstance—and each is shaped and changed by the socio-political landscape of America in the early 20th century.

Houndstooth was once the best hippo rancher (called a “hopper”) in America, and “could have been the best in the world,” until his ranch went up in flames. Adrift, with nothing to his name but his bedroll and Ruby, his one surviving hippo, Houndstooth is the mastermind, the glue that holds the team together—and the only one who knows how to access their $8000 payment on completion of the mission.

The team’s demolition expert, Hero is “the smartest person Houndstooth had ever met.” They’re also the novella’s most interesting character, and its emotional heartbeat. “Hero could blow up a bank vault with a pile of hippo dung and a cup of water, and they could make it look like an accident,” says Houndstooth, quite seriously.

Archie, a con artist whose “meteor hammer can take down a charging bull faster than anyone [else],” is Houndstooth’s long-time confidant. She’s saved his life somewhere between nine and ten times, and is as dependable and clever a criminal as you could ever ask for.

Cal Hotchkiss, “the fastest gun in the West,” is the team’s token white guy. (For real, Gailey works this into the plot in a most amusing way.)

Adelia Reyes is “without question, the deadliest, most ruthless contract killer of the day.” She’s also very pregnant, but don’t let that fool you—she’s worth every penny of her reputation, as Houndstooth and his crew will find out.

Lurking beneath the surface of the caper storyline is a rich and nuanced romance between Houndstooth and Hero. A displaced Korean British man in early 1900s America, Houndstooth himself is a damaged, and seeking both revenge and a more clear understanding of where he stands in the world. “They didn’t like me there,” Houndstooth admits of his home country during one of the novel’s more intimate conversations. He’s a lost soul, which is part of the reason why he surrounds himself his a cadre of misfits—if society rejects them, then they will reject society and its strict definitions of who fits and who doesn’t. Not that you’d hear any of that from Houndstooth himself. “I am, after all, English,” he says to Adelia at one point. “We don’t like to discuss.”

This aspect of Houndstooth’s personality, that which yearns to for direction, to belong, is a major part of the reason why he’s so drawn to Hero. The demolitions expert also does not fit in the boxes deemed acceptable by larger society, but eschews that judgment to live a life that allows them to be who they are meant to be. There’s a freedom in Hero’s self-assurance and sense of self that Houndstooth craves and admires. It’s a genuine and warm bonding between two likeable and interesting people.

In addition to all the warm fuzzies, this relationship also raises the stakes during the book’s climax, taking it from the realm of run-of-the-mill hippo herding into something more personal and emotional. Even if the romance comes on a bit too quickly (the book is short, after all), all can be forgiven because of Gailey’s mature, intimate handling of their blossoming relationship, and uniformly excellent character building.

As with all of Gailey’s work, there’s a terrific thread of biting humour throughout the narrative. River of Teeth doesn’t set out to be a humorous story—it’s full of blood and guts, betrayal, death, revenge, and all sorts of other crunchy, mean stuff—but Gailey’s natural voice (check out this Twitter thread if you’re unfamiliar) shines through, and provides levity at just the right moments. Take this guffaw when Gailey capitalizes on a long-running joke:

“Mr. Houndstooh. I believe you’re in charge of this hippo caper?”

Houndstooth looked simultaneously pained and affronted. “It’s not a caper, Mr. Carter.” Behind him, Archie mouthed the words along with him. “It’s an operation, all aboveboard. We were hired by the federal government, I’ll have you know, and—”

“Oh, my apologies, Mr. Houndstooth. I misspoke. Of course it only makes sense that the federal government of the United States of America would hire a team of down-and-out criminals for a caper on the Harriet.”

“It’s not a caper—”

“Yes, well. At any rate.” (Ch. 12)

Amusing moments like this are seeded throughout the whole book, and reveals new facets to Houndstooth’s team, as individuals and as a collective group. This is just one of the many techniques Gailey uses to craft her unusual, likeable cast of characters.

Thing is, though River of Teeth’s characters excel and would be enough to recommend the book entirely on their own, the world building and plotting are aces, too.

From its wonderful set pieces:

The narrow passage of the Gate opened up into the waters of the Harriet. The humid haze of the day didn’t quite obscure the massive dam that dominated the horizon behind him, dwarfing the riverboats and pleasure barges that dotted the water. Here and there, a canoe-sized islet bumped up out of the surface of the Harriet. Houndstooth would have expected them to be covered with birds—but then, he supposed the ferals made this a dangerous place to be a bird. (Ch. 9)

to its obvious affection for the hippos that separate it from the rest of the pack:

Ruby was sleeker than most hippos, but not by much. Though her livestock cousins had been bred for marbling, her sub-Saharan ancestors carried little excess fat. Their rotund shape belied merciless speed and agility, and Ruby was the apex of those ancient ideals: bred for maneuverability, fearlessness, and above all, stealth. (Ch. 1)

River of Teeth is tense fast-paced, and knows just when to let up on the gas to let you breath (because, believe me, you’re going to need to save your breath for the climax.) Surprisingly, the feral hippos only provide a small portion of the River of Teeth’s tension and conflict. Like the vast and atmospheric expanse of the Harriet, they’re a framing device for a story about broken people, desperation, and revenge.

That all said, if you weren’t already afraid of hippos, you will be after reading River of Teeth. Gailey’s vicious and terrifying descriptions of wild hippos (referred to as “ferals,” for good reason) will have you reconsidering their roly-poly reputation:

With a jerk and a splash, the man disappeared under the water. He came back up again, sputtering. Then he was airborne, flipped by the nose of the first adult feral to reach the Gate.

Archie and Houndstooth watched as the man flailed between the feral’s jaws. The man screamed in ear-splitting agony as his blood ran down the hippo’s jowls and into the water. His colleague scrambled up the ladder to safety, not looking back even as the screams died with a wet crunch. (Ch. 14)

Gailey doesn’t beat you over the head with it—she’s too sophisticated in her storytelling for that—but River of Teeth is very much a story about privilege. At one point, the team loses their only white male member, which becomes quite problematic for a number of reasons, and their solution is both satisfying and thoughtful. Each member of of Houndstooth’s team, minus the aforementioned white guy, live in a world that looks past them, deems them “down-and-out criminals,” even while robbing them of their rights. River of Teeth is about a hodge-podge team trying to wrangle feral hippopotamuses, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg—beneath the surface are much vaster motivations and desires, all of which beg to be explored in future volumes.

River of Teeth is Gailey’s coming out party, and, without a doubt, will firmly cement her among today’s best young SFF writers. With its bombastic set pieces, rich, layered characters, smooth prose, and delicious dialogue, River of Teeth, like everything Gailey has written, is a delight to read from start to finish. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll scream like an adolescent watching his first horror movie. But, most of all, by the end you’ll be clamouring for River of Teeth’s sequel.

River of Teeth is available now from Tor.com.
Read an excerpt from the novella here, and learn more about the sequel, Taste of Marrow.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink.

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