I was watching the BBC one day – one of those nature shows, if I remember correctly – when I learned the most surprising fact: that hippos are one of the most dangerous animals out there (or the most dangerous land animal) killing way more people than you can think of, through a combination of size, speed, and teeth.
Second most surprising fact regarding hippos: one upon a time, the US government came up with a plan to import hippos into the marshlands of the west to breed them as an alternative meat source. Considering fact #1 as stated above, this would have been a bad idea and it never went ahead.
I learned fact #2 in the introduction to Sarah Gailey’s novella River of Teeth, which is set in an alternate 19th century in which that US government plan not only did go ahead but it ended up being as terrible as you’d expect. In the marshlands of Louisiana, the rivers are overrun by feral hippos and those who control the river, control the riches around it.
Enter Winslow Houndstooth, a former hippo breeder who is hired by the government to clean up the feral hippos so that commerce can resume in the area. He puts together a team of misfits to carry out his caper – sorry, this operation – and the group is to get in, get out, explode things, take no hostages, use this opportunity to avenge some wrong-doings from Winslow’s past. Easy.
There is a villain who knows way more than he should about their caper (sorry, operation).
River of Teeth features some of my favourite tropes ever: a caper story, an “assembling the team” story, a found family story, an alternate history. AND it is populated with diverse characters, great dialogue, romance, and more. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven meets a Western Caper, only the cowboys ride pet hippos (who are characters in themselves), there are plenty of badass ladies and one major non-binary character (the genius explosive expert) who also turns out to be the main romantic interest.
There only two shortfalls here. One of them I often feel like this is part and parcel of good novellas: there was just not enough of it and some of it was just too rushed, with awkward transitions.
The other one: I will never forgive the author for not giving me the on-screen scene where Winslow and Hero hook up. I feel bereft for missing out and can only imagine how Winslow was charmed and confounded by Hero’s awesomeness.
A delightful novella that proved to be fun and charming with killer hippos and even better characters.
In Booksmugglerish – 8 out of 10