River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

“In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.”

Okay, the thought of the American government importing hippos for meat was so outlandish that I wasn’t sure it was true.  Then I did a bit of research.  It is true.  Can you imagine swamp hippos?  Can you imagine the reality shows on Discovery Channel about swamp hippos?  The mind boggles.

The mind also really liked this novella.  While I’m not sure that hippos could be tamed enough to ride, I was able to buy into this version of America with riverboat barons that use man-eating hippos to keep unruly guests in line, and a government effort to deal with the fallout of their dubious decision regarding those hippos.  The author seems to have incorporated a lot of aspects of actual frontier culture into her setting, so the rich background does a lot to make the narrative feel grounded.

In a story that’s comparatively short like this one, it’s hard to effectively flesh out the characters, especially since this is the first of a series (book two comes out in September) and the place where their personalities, quirks, and motivations get set up.  With this in mind, it’s not too surprising that Houndstooth is the most solidly drawn of the characters, but the others have their moments in which they get to display a bit of who they are.  For example, one of the characters is either gender neutral or gender fluid, which adds an extra dimension to the story–it’s not something that would have been usual to encounter in the 1890s, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.  The characters are still not nearly as fleshed out as those in full-length novels, but Gailey gives it a good try.

Add to all of this a Leverage-esque caper and you have one heck of a unique story.  I think that the plot, unlike the characters, was well served by being in this shorter format.  The action doesn’t drag–it doesn’t have time to drag–and thus the plot is this book’s greatest strength.  The hippos add just enough of a weirdness factor to bolster the story too.

This isn’t a perfect story, but it’s interesting enough and has enough of a unique premise (one based in reality, no less) to get my vote.  River of Teeth is a quick read for your summer afternoon at the beach.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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