River of Teeth

September 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teethRiver of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

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This much is true:

In 1910, Robert Broussard, a US Senator from Louisiana, introduced a bill to import hippopotamuses from Africa so they could eliminate the water hyacinth that was invading the state’s waterways, and also to solve the meat shortage in the US. It didn’t pass, but only because of one vote.

I know, right? Not only do you want to read more about the American Hippo Bill, but you also wonder what the US would be like had it passed. I get it. Sarah Gailey gets it, too, and wrote River of Teeth based on that piece of American history.

I’ll admit it: I bought this novella just because of the premise. Gailey’s alternative history is entertaining and has a clean, precise style, but it fails in other ways that makes it hard for me to recommend it. One thing is that she starts her story earlier, setting the American Hippo Bill in 1857 instead of 1910.

I think I understand why she did this — for the type of story she wrote, the US in 1910 didn’t fit what she wanted to do. She had to back it up a bit, make the US a bit more of a Wild West setting so her characters and plot wouldn’t be out of place. I just don’t understand why she didn’t tell that story in a different setting instead of rewriting the history that much. That brings me to the other thing that I didn’t understand about this novella, which is: Why isn’t this story about the American Hippo Act?

Gailey tells us a story of a ragtag group of adventurers on a caper (sorry, operation) to rid the hippos from the Mississippi River and flush them into the Gulf of Mexico. We have a diverse group of characters, including a bisexual male, a large French woman, a pregnant woman, and Hero, a character who is referred to as “they” through the course of the story. It was somewhat puzzling, because Gailey never addressed why that was the case. My guess is that Hero is intended to be genderless, and “they” is the closest non-gendered pronoun she can use, but it was distracting, and caused me a lot of confusion when they were introduced.

The group also includes a straight white male, who was presented as the most boorish, racist, sexist character ever seen. He was more loathsome than the antagonist, and he was — thankfully — killed off before the caper really got started. I couldn’t help but wonder why he was included, since he didn’t contribute anything to the narrative, save to show that the main characters were the opposite of him. Gailey adds a bit about how he had a history with the organizer of the operation, suggesting that he was there for him to get revenge, but it never happens, and I just couldn’t see the point.

River of Teeth is about these characters and their operation, which was fine in and of itself, but dammit, I came to this story for the hippos, and I didn’t get enough hippos. They serve as a backdrop, but that’s about it. At the end of the book, Gailey provides a timeline of how the hippos came to be in the river, and I wondered why the book wasn’t about that, instead of what I had just read.

In addition, key scenes in the story didn’t seem developed. Gailey takes time to introduce the characters, giving each of them traits necessary to pull off the caper, but when it comes time for them to use them, we don’t always see it happen. One character uses her skills to collect explosives, and another character manages to retrieve their weapons after they’ve been collected, but it all happens off screen. Why take the time to create these characters with their skills if we never get to see them in action? Was this originally a longer work that Gailey condensed to make it fit the novella format?

One of the characters is French, and Gailey chooses to write part of her dialogue in her accent, but it’s inconsistent. She’s not writing it out in phonetics (thank the stars), but she does have her drop her lead Hs, so she would say “‘e” instead of “he”. The thing is, sometimes she does say “he”. It’s a minor thing, but when you go that route in a story, it’s important to stick with it.

Gailey is a good writer, and she tells an entertaining yarn, but River of Teeth isn’t the story I expected. It’s not that I don’t want a story to surprise me, but when a story is promoted to death over its connection to the American Hippos Act, I expect that to be the core of the story. I wouldn’t discount Gailey all together over this book, but I’m not sure I’ll be on board for the rest of this series.

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