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