Hippo Mayhem with More Emotional Complexity: Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey’s a rising star. Earlier this year (in addition to a Hugo Nomination for “Best Related Work”) she found herself on the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer shortlist alongside other impressive newcomers like Malka Older, Kelly Robson, and winner Ada Palmer. She landed herself on the ballot thanks to her short fiction, which is honed to such a sharp edge that you’d think she’s been writing for years. Gailey gained widespread acclaim with the release of her debut novelette, River of Teeth.

River of Teeth is Gailey’s coming out party, and, without a doubt, will firmly cement her among today’s best young SFF writers,” I said of River of Teeth in my review. And it’s true—Sarah Gailey is among today’s best young SFF writers. Heck, she can tango with the experienced SFF writers, too. “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.”

That sequel, available now, is Taste of Marrow, and, oh boy, does it deliver.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about River of Teeth was that its most affecting conflicts weren’t those that revolved around the ferocity of the feral hippos lurking beneath the waters of the Mississippi (though it didn’t lack for satisfying action), but the various labyrinthine relationships that developed as its protagonist, a hopper (think a cowboy who rides hippos instead of horses) Winslow Remington Houndstooth assembled his team of misfits and outcasts. Taste of Marrow, however, is on another level entirely. From Adelia to Houndstood, Archie to Hero, Taste of Marrow is a story about how people change (permanently or temporarily) in response to life defining moments—specifically, in this case, the emotional fallout resulting from the bombastic conclusion to River of Teeth.

That’s not to say that Taste of Marrow is more emotionally mature than its predecessor, because River of Teeth was already beautifully wrought, but Gailey takes the building blocks she previously laid, and jumbles them up into something startling and new. Houndstooth, who was so confident and proactive in River of Teeth, has to confront the vulnerability resulting from the loss of his loved one; and Adelia, River of Teeth‘s preeminent badass, is on the run with a newborn baby at her hip, all the while contemplating the violent life she desperately wishes to leave behind.

“‘Alone and lonely ain’t the same thing at all,’ Hero said, shaking their head.” This moment of clarity, late in the book, resonated with me, and perfectly encapsulated the themes that Taste of Marrow so eloquently explores. Though Houndstooth and Adelia are surrounded by allies—some likelier than others—they each battle loneliness and despair. In a story so effectively supported by its terrific ensemble cast, Taste of Marrow does a terrific job of communicating loneliness and the perils associated with mental illnesses such as PTSD, obsessive compulsiveness, and anxiety.

Though they are on parallel journeys of self-discovery and recovery, Houndstooth and Adelia are very different from one another, and Gailey bravely juxtaposes their differences. To escape her fear and anxiety, to chase a better future, Adelia is determined and ruthless—strength born from her single-mindedness; Houndstooth, on the other hand, falls into a dangerous, almost delirious obsessive compulsiveness—sabotaged by the same burning desire that fuels Adelia. They are so unlike their River of Teeth counterparts, but at the same time feel true to themselves.

Houndstooth walked into the darkening trees. As the buzz of nocturnal insects began to rise, he let himself get lost on the little islet. He let himself get lost in the dark, and her let himself cry, although he couldn’t have said what exactly the tears were for any more than he could have said who it was that he had truly been shouting at back at camp. He wandered until it was too dark to see the trees in front of him, and then he sat on the ground and put his face in his hands and wondered if he could ever find his way back.

Rather than trying to copy and paste what made River of Teeth so successful, Taste of Marrow is an about turn—a challenge to take the same set of blocks and build something wholly different. And Gailey mostly succeeds.

While Taste of Marrow ups the emotional complexity, and delves to admirable depths into the conflicts facing its characters, the plot doesn’t drive forward with quite the same intensity as its prequel. Taste of Marrow feels shorter than River of Teeth (though I read both on an eReader, so I don’t know the respective word counts), both in the time it takes to complete, and also the complexity of its plot. Taste of Marrow feels smaller, more personal, which is a benefit to Gailey’s goal of exploring the emotional fallout of the previous book, but might not appeal to some readers who enjoyed the broad, expansive worldbuilding that she employed in River of Teeth. On the other hand, Gailey feels more comfortable with the world, and, trusting that readers have read the first volume, eases off the expositionary pedal, really allowing her characters to breathe. Taste of Marrow is different than River of Teeth, but whether that’s a good or a bad thing is likely up to the tastes of each individual reader.

Likely related to the above, and due to the subject matter at hand, Taste of Marrow isn’t as fun a story as River of Teeth. Of course, Gailey’s scalpel-precise sense of humour is still evident, but it’s used more delicately this time around—to relieve pressure, rather than provide amusement.

If you’ll allow me to be entirely subjective for a moment, one of my favourite aspects of Taste of Marrow, and what puts it ahead of River of Teeth for me, is the way Gailey so beautifully captures Adelia’s struggles with reconciling motherhood with her grisly past.

Adelia had expected to love the baby, to cherish and nurture her—but she could never have anticipated how much she liked Ysabel. It usually took Adelia months to warm up to people, and yet the moment that Ysabel was born, Adelia had felt as if they’d been best friends for years.

Go figure.

Adelia felt a faint smile shade her lips at the thought of her daughter’s eyes staring up at her, wide and dark and just like her own. She smiled that little smile in spite of the gut-clenching terror: Those men have Ysabel. She smiled because she knew what to do with this man, this man who had helped to steal her baby.

To my knowledge, Gailey doesn’t have children of her own, which makes her grasp of the emotional and logistical challenges facing new parents even more impressive. Having a child of my own, and knowing the highs and lows that can fill those first months after a child is born, I was tremendously impressed by how well Gailey was able to weave these elements, including the physical post-natal challenges that affect some women, into not only Adelia’s emotional arc, but the overarching plot as well. Mastitis is no joke.

Taste of Marrow is everything a sequel should be. It builds upon River of Teeth beautifully, proving that Gailey’s larger-than-life reimagining of life in the southern US  is more than just a flashy idea, but has all the necessary components to provide a vivid, unique setting for many different types of stories. Taste of Marrow might be different than its predecessor, but that’s only evidence of the far-reaching boundaries that Gailey explores with her fiction.

2017 was kind to Sarah Gailey—but, from where I’m sitting, it looks like she’s going nowhere but up.

Taste of Marrow is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “On the Phone with Goblins” and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and a 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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