Title: River of Teeth
Authors: Sarah Gailey (Twitter)
Rating: Recommended With Criticism
Genre/Category: Historical Fiction, Western, Queer Fiction, Hippos, Alternate History
Release Date: May 23, 2017
Publisher: Tor.Com Publishing
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in this review are my own.
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.
Honestly, there’s a part of me that’d like to thank Sarah Gailey for giving me a fear of hippopotamuses with her high-tension, hippo-filled novella River of Teeth.
Look, I live in South Florida. My corner of the state is like super marshy and already full to the brim with scary animals like gators, pythons, and everything that escaped from Miami Zoo in the wake of Hurricane Andrew back in 1992. (Including the rudest peacocks you will see on this side of US-1…)
I’m used to being afraid of wildlife.
It’s kind of my thing, to be honest.
But River of Teeth put a fear of hippos in me like you wouldn’t believe.
It’s part alternate history, part straight-shooting Western with hippos basically all over this book. Mean, bite-y hippos that can tear a man in two without even trying. And believe me, in this book, they sure are trying.
Hippos are herbivores. They don’t have to be as mean as they are and yet…
Aside from the domesticated hippos (that still have a hefty bite), they’re mean as hell.
In Sarah Gailey’s alternate version of the United States, Congressman Albert Broussard’s Hippo Act passes in 1857 as a way to provide the U.S. with an alternative foodsource (for more information on the real and little known aspect of U.S. history starring Robert Broussard, check out her tweet thread on it) and by the story’s start around the early 1900s, feral hippos basically run roughshod across many parts of the marshy Mississippi.
And… because people in power apparently missed the memo that hippos are basically always down to fuck people up, no one’s eating hippo tacos on the regular in this book.
Which brings us to the plot of the novella as five questionable characters come together to run what is repeatedly disavowed as a “caper” for the United States’ Government. Their mission is to take care of those terrible feral hippos by any means necessary.
The caper aspect of the novella gives it a little bit of a Leverage feel while everything else (including and especially the horrible deaths at the jaws of hippos) brought a serious Western vibe to the table. Which makes sense because again, River of Teeth is basically a waterlogged Western but with hippos roaming where horses can’t.
For the most part, I liked River of Teeth because there were definitely some awesome and unexpected moments. The characters, while maybe not fleshed out as much as they’d be in a longer work, were still more than interesting enough to leave me wanting a sequel (which is ~happening~). My main faves because I’m predictable are the main(est) character, Winslow Houndstooth, and nonbinary Black badass, Hero. I adore them SO MUCH.
On top of that, my jaded, Western-obsessed behind (blame my darling dad who has been a fan of Westerns from the 50’s and raised me to follow in his footsteps) loved the feel of the novella. It was just so dang engaging!
However, there are some rough spots that River of Teeth can’t quite manage to navigate around. Namely when it comes to two of the main characters and descriptions for characters that aren’t actual hippos.
First things first, I didn’t know that Houndstooth was Korean until I read that little tidbit in a review on Tor.com that described him as “A displaced Korean British man in early 1900’s America”. I’m assuming that this is Word-Of-God on Gailey’s part because well…
I’ve read River of Teeth three times so far and I still don’t remember any explicit confirmation of his Korean-ness on the page. There are plenty of oblique references to him being Othered by Whiteness but it’s all very vague. I didn’t think he was white, that’s for sure, but I also didn’t get Korean either.
One of those references is a moment in the first chapter where Houndstooth mentions and experiences what is, for him in this time period and place, a regularly occurring microaggression. But the scene certainly doesn’t clear the air:
It was always the same with these government types. They were deeply confused by the juxtaposition of his vague accent and his eyes. His country’s accent. His parent’s eyes.
“So, where are you from?”
Ah, yes. There it was. They could begin the requisite dialogue about where he was from and where he was from. Houndstooth didn’t look up from the coins.
“Blackpool.” He could have made his tone frostier, but being in the presence of such a lovely stack of hard money warmed him like a milky cup of Earl Grey.
“You don’t sound British,” the agent said quietly. Houndstooth found himself intrigued by the catch in the young man’s voice.
“Yes, well,” Winslow Houndstooth replied with a crocodile grin. “I suppose my accent’s almost gone by now. I’ve been in Georgia for some time. I came to the States to be a hopper, and once I tasted my first Georgia peach,” he reached across the table to touch the agent’s arm, scattering the photos, “it was just too sweet for me to leave.”
I mean… am I missing something here, or nah?
(And please, if I missed something explicit in the Text, feel free to point it out.)
One of the things that I had an issue with is that I felt that the novel positioned Houndstooth as “British first” when it came to cultural markers and I got all up in my feelings because of course, the history of Britain’s colonialist history, is a history that comes along with a bunch of demands for conformity. But, as my dear friend Samira Nadkarni pointed out after reading this part in my original review draft, there are complications to consider:
“I see your point but arguably, there’s also complexity within this where second and third generation immigrants aren’t allowed to claim an identity despite having known no other nation or culture. I’d say there’s indication in the novel that Houndstooth is second generation at least (his parents seem to be first gen) and there’s an indication that they’re strict and restrictive when it comes to his choice to be a hopper, which could be read as Britishness but shares factors in common with my understandings of Korean culture. What’s odd about that moment is how he describes essentially running away from his family to become a hopper in the U.S. while retaining his British identity—there’s a weird aspect of discarding links to any Korean culture (though what form this should take is complicated, particularly with second and third generations of diaspora).”.
Which is a really good point and I’m glad that Samira pointed it out to me. Whether or not Gailey intended to touch upon that complexity of identity and the way that many immigrants that aren’t first generation are denied the right to claim “home” as theirs, doesn’t necessarily matter because the room for that nuanced reading is present in the text.
While I’m at it, I have another little problem with the fact that the few times the novella brings up Houndstooth’s otherness (I guess… his POC-ness, blargh) it’s largely in relation to racism and microaggressions that he experiences.
I’ve written about this – white writers predominantly showing suffering/pain due to racism when dealing with characters of color — before in relation to the X-men franchise and I think it’s relevant here because it’s something that I felt occurred in the book:
[…]for the most part, race is kind of a non-issue in the X-men franchise.
I don’t just mean racism right (though yeah, it’s a reality of not being seen as white where you live) but acknowledgement of race or celebrations of race.
Racism isn’t the only thing people of color have experienced throughout history and it’s so very frustrating that many times, when a white writer tackles characters of color, they tend to bring up racism and bigotry way more than they do any other aspect of these characters’ identity. As a Black person, I find myself annoyed by narratives that, due to their focus on racism as the main signifier of an Othered ethnicity, seem to equate being a person of color with suffering.
It’s uncomfortable to read at times because being a person of color is already stressful. I’m low-key tired of being reminded about racism tossed in and around the weirdest places.
This is an alternate universe where hippos are probably going to take over the southeast United States in a couple of decades and folks ride hippos like horses and yet… sometime-ish racism against characters of color basically feels like the only surefire way for readers to mark that they are in fact characters of color.
This brings us to yet another issue I found with River of Teeth and race: this book is set in early 1900s and racism is clearly a thing and yet, despite the fact that it’s set in the U.S. in the deep ass South, Hero’s blackness is basically not a thing the narrative is concerned with or even mentions beyond the “ink dark” hue of their skin.
I didn’t clock any descriptions of their lips, nose, or hair throughout the novella or even a hint of their backstory.
And, that lack of a backstory is kind of an issue for me what with Hero being a Black person in the southern part of the U.S. in the early 1900s and all.
I was expecting a bit more to them than what we got, which was… basically nothing.
I get that it’s a novella and the first in what appears to be a continuing series so there’s going to be a lot that gets dropped or that will show up in the future, but I feel that things like… some backstory for Hero or a bit of worldbuilding that addressed Blackness in the text would have been amazing. I definitely felt their absence, to be sure.
In an interview with Tor.com’s Alasdair Stuart released shortly after her novella’s release, when asked about what she had to cut either from history or from her original plans, Gailey basically cut out all the stuff about discrimination (aside from the microaggressions), saying:
I definitely cut a lot of things from historical records, and because I was working in a shorter format, I was able to do it with some judicious handwaving. The book takes place in the 1890s, and features a diverse cast that encounters very little discrimination. If someone were to extrapolate the history of the world that had to develop in order for this story to happen, they’d probably need to cut out a lot of slavery and colonialism and Western Imperialism from America’s history.
River of Teeth isn’t set in a perfect world.
It’s a world where, as I’ve mentioned before, characters of color are forced to deal with and often ignore racial microaggressions directed towards them.
It is in this weird in-between state that a bisexual British-Korean hippo wrangler is subject to a microaggression in like chapter one, but the dark skinned, non-binary, Black person he’s travelling with across the post-Civil War South isn’t dealing with like any of the stuff that Black people have dealt with in the South.
I’m not referring simply to showing characters dealing with racism or rehashing the history of slavery in your world because, again, I’m pretty much the poster child for “we are more than that”, but even just being in the South is a complicated experience for Black people in the U.S. and it always has been.
There’s so much to consider when writing a Black person in the South at any time: culture, community, language, how class/gender/sexuality would intersect. These things all need to show up in the character you’re writing because of the way Blackness in the U.S. has worked for generations.
Unfortunately, I get basically none of that from this book.
Believe me, I get Gailey not writing out the epic history of her hippo-filled Mississippi because novellas are itty bitty and that’s a lot to cram into a book that’s getting a sequel before the year is out. I also get that Gailey means well and has tried her best to make her book as inclusive as possible.
However, I am uncomfortable with how some of the things cut from this book about people of color in the deep South relate back to slavery (the setting is mere decades after the end of the Civil War), systematic racism, and explicit references to colonialism.
Also, and this is something I realized while finishing up this review, I can’t picture Hero or Houndstooth very well when I close my eyes. All I remember of their descriptions are Houndstooth’s cheekbones and his skin being light enough to show a blush while Hero’s skin wasn’t.
I can picture Archie and Adelia well enough because of the descriptions they’re given (and I don’t care about Cal), but the hippos in the book definitely get more vivid descriptions than Hero and Houndstooth do. The main hippos get like a paragraph of description each in addition to their own blog post complete with pictures.
Additionally, if you blinked and missed where Gran Carter is referred to as “the black man in the black hat” in the start of chapter 5, you’d be surprised as hell when you find out via Word of God in the interview I linked earlier that he’s based on one of the first Black U.S. Marshals.
I know I was.
“Blink and miss it” descriptions, like in River of Teeth where many of the characters (characters of color for the most part) aren’t described in greater detail, are a problem. We live in a world that prioritizes Whiteness as the default in situations like this and where many people from Hollywood execs on down choose to whitewash characters who aren’t clearly “of color”. (And even some of the ones that are.)
Vagueness, in cases like this, isn’t helpful to bringing diverse audiences in or in quelling audiences’ automatic default to White.
I enjoyed River of Teeth and I loved that this version of the United States that Sarah Gailey has created is one where Hero’s nonbinary-ness largely just accepted, where the relationship that they have with Houndstooth is so sweet and quickly developed, and where badass women like Adelia and Archie can do the absolute most in the best ways.
However, it’s also a world where race in the U.S. at the turn of the century appears to be a non-issue outside of the microaggressions Houndstooth experiences (which is itself an issue for me).
It’s a world in a book that doesn’t describe characters of color as characters of color beyond the barest of bare minimums and the microaggressions they experience which, because we live in a world where folks would whitewash the hell out of a dark room, isn’t something to be proud of.
Seriously, I’m still looking forward to Taste of Marrow. However, when that book comes out this Fall, I need it to do better than this one did when it comes to the development and descriptions of characters of color, because I ended the book with a better picture of the characters’ hippos in my mind than two of the main characters of color.