River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of hippos, heists and Westerns
★    ★    1/2

I think we’ve all had our mental images of hippos cutified by Fiona the Hippo, right?

Totally undoctored cuteness

Though River of Teeth predates that pudge of adorableness, focusing more on their ferocity than their cuteness. Alas; it takes more than a great Big Idea to make a story.

Hippos have been brought to the southern U.S., essentially replacing horses as transportation in the uncertain and watery in the 19th century Louisiana landscape. A fatter, more sedentary breed of hippos has replaced cattle as a meat source. There’s also a secondary Big Idea, a broad range of gender and sexuality. Beyond the Big Ideas, there isn’t anything new, with a plot that is a straight-up ‘putting a gang together’ for one big job.

Sadly, it should have gone through a bit more work to give the reader something besides HIPPOS. Novellas should be tight little stories, and there’s a lot thrown in here that doesn’t make sense. Though Gailey endeavors to be part of the ‘show don’t tell’ school of alt-history world-building, she chooses the wrong bits of information to show.  We witness overweight-but-adorable-but forgetable Regina (known as ‘Archie’) picking pockets and running a con, but it doesn’t explain why she would be needed for the hippo job. She then spontaneously brings along a new apprentice. When we meet the retired explosives expert Hero, they are always referred to in plural, and there’s no explanation why–it’s never truly clear if they are a multiple personality or a gender-neutral character whose description is limited by the English language. There’s also a very pregnant but badass Latina assassin, and an incompetent card shark and shooter with Major Issues with a couple other characters.   Really, when I think back, I can tell you their sexual preferences (or lack thereof) and their Heist Role. I’m not entirely sure why, as it’s only germane in two of them.

Obviously, in the midst of this detail, the plot takes second fiddle. The reader–and the team–are too much in the dark (another traditional Heist device), and don’t find out about The Plan until they’re in dire straits. In fact, I’m not exactly clear why the government doesn’t just step in with sharpshooters (or knife-throwers) and offer a bounty, they way they did with wolves. But I’ll just go with that premise, because it’s fun. Except the ‘twist’ then highlighted how nonsensical the situation was.

It wants to be fun (with hippos, names like ‘Hero’ and a ridiculous ‘French’ accent, how could it not?) but one gratuitous death and one messy one make it feel distinctly deadly. Then there’s the very tired running joke of ‘it’s-an-operation-not-a-caper’ that really needs to be re-done so the reader isn’t eye-rolling by the end.

And the hippos. Well, they were engaging, but largely (haha) played a supporting role. They were their favorite mounts, the opposition, and part of the leader’s reason for revenge. But it takes more than a Big Idea to make a story, and I mildly regret paying for this one. I certainly won’t pay for the next.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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3 Responses to River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

  1. neotiamat says:

    Sara Gailey seems like one of those up-and-coming authors that is suddenly *everywhere* (I know that Tor keeps sending me things with her, and I hear her mentioned on author-twitter), and River of Teeth has crossed my radar a bit… but I kept holding off because of reviews that said ‘the idea is better than the execution’.

    Having read your thoughts, I think I’m going to firmly put this book in the ‘Not Interested’ pile.

    • thebookgator says:

      Yes. I’ll say it here–I think most of the enthusiastic reviews are so enchanted by HIPPOS that they overlook the rest. They usually follow their enthusiasm with ‘but it was too short’ and ‘I wanted more detail,’ which one might be inclined to excuse because it’s a novella–until one remembers that loads of authors do amazing things with shorter books and only leave one wanting more story, not more world-building and characterization. $4.99 isn’t very much, but it’s more than I usually spend for Kindle books. By those standards, it wasn’t worth it. It honestly feels like a Indie Author book.

      • neotiamat says:

        I can see that. I tend to get a dubious when reviews go on about how great the concept is, or how great the representation is, or what-not, but then don’t talk about actual plot or characterization.

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