River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Tor, 2017. 9780765395238. 176pp.
Sarah: So you told me wild west, hippos instead of cows.
Gene: Very LGBTQ friendly, and a great western.
S: I was like, yeah, maybe, and then I picked it up and I was like YES!
G: Isn’t it the greatest? Just putting the team together…
S: That was one of my favorite parts. The second person he tries to hire tries to poison him.
G: That’s Hero. The guy in charge, his name is Houndstooth. But first, the world. There’s a timeline of events in the back. It’s based on a thing that almost happened.
S: But later.
G: At some point the US government was going to turn part of the Mississippi River into a marsh and bring hippos in to solve some meat shortage. In this book that happens in 1857, part of the river is dammed to create habitat, and it’s named The Harriet after President Buchanan’s favorite cow (a nice touch). It’s declared neutral territory in the Great Hippo Compromise. A ranch is destroyed, hippos are released into the marsh and become feral.
S: Hippos in real life are vicious and will eat you, so this area is declared lawless.
G: And there’s a big gate to contain the hippos.
S: The area has been taken over by a criminal who runs a riverboat gambling operation. So his influence rests on keeping the hippos there for his illegal empire.
G: He feeds people to the hippos if they mess up.
S: Over the edge and into the water!
G: The government wants it cleaned up. Enter: Houndstooth, and his hippo Ruby.
S: A Cambridge Black, gorgeous, with gold teeth.
G: Sleek, fast, deadly.
S: He’s hired to get the feral hippos out, and the government assumes it will take decades.
G: He’s taking the job for revenge, but we don’t know why or against whom. He has a plan to do it really quickly. He’s got to put a crew together. He’s dapper, has a bag of gold.
S: People don’t know about his background but he’s British, and they keep saying he doesn’t look he would be…
G: And then he sleeps with the guy who hires him. Oh! This isn’t going to be like other westerns!
S: Right. I was wondering if Gailey could sustain that, and the answer was yes.
G: There’s a great moment where he’s looking at photos of the people he’s going to hire, and they’re not described much. The next person is Archie the Con, a very large woman, very sexually desired, on a mostly blind albino hippo. She’s a seductress and a pickpocket. Then he has to go to Hero.
S: They’re retired, sitting on a porch, drinking iced tea. Offers Houndstooth some tea. Hero takes a sip. And then the tea eats through the glass, the bannister, and a rose bush, which was so good, I was in at that point.
G: There’s not a great description of Hero.
S: Definitely doesn’t identify as a woman or a man. Some people don’t get it, but some do.
G: But most get it. This is an alternate history where more folks were like, They’re part of your crew? Awesome!
S: It was. There are lots of generations of westerns where they’re reframed to put the current us into the adventure. And so successive generations add themselves in like this. I love it!
G: Then they go into the Harriet to find the other two people, one a poor gambler, the other the most brutal contract killer in the world. Everyone on the crew has a good entrance.
Doesn’t someone keep asserting they’re trying to pull off a caper?
S: Yes. Houndstooth disagrees, he says it’s an operation. Reminded me of some of my favorite parts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, some of the little back and forth quips that establish the characters.
G: Then the western proceeds in the swamp, with hippos. And you can’t explain any more, because it would give away too much of the plot.
S: It’s a short book that moves fast.
G: I love novella length stories that don’t get bogged down in explanation.
S: Someone asked me about this after I’d just finished it. I said I had been worried it would be one of those books where the LGBTQ aspect makes it feel like an issue book. This is not an issue book, it’s just a part of it. It’s deliberate and incorporated.
G: It’s just not a big deal.
S: It’s not a problem.