When I discovered these novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow was collected into a single volume called American Hippo. A western involving hippos? I was intrigued enough to lean in. There is a Kevin Hearne blurb on the cover. Yeah, I had to read this one. And you should, too—even if you are as terrified of the hippopotamus as I am.
River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey
Tom Doherty, 2017. Paperback, 175 and 192 pages.
In an alternate turn of events, Congress green-lit the wild-haired idea to bring hippos to the U.S. as a means of invasive vegetation control and a source of meat. Hoppers like Winslow Houndstooth breed them like any other form of livestock, setting aside certain breeds for non-edible reasons. Some of the hippos, however, have become feral and at the story’s opening, are contained in a dammed up portion of the Mississippi River called the Harriet.
Hired by the federal government for a considerable amount of money, Houndstooth is to head a small band of equally questionable characters for an operation (not caper) involving the removal/eradication of the ferals. This job will suit a personal agenda of Houndstooth, but there are some obstacles–some of the crews’ own agendas to name a few.
Gailey writes a good plot, but it’s secondary to the team she assembles for her caper (not operation). If you are a fan of Bardugo’s ensemble Six of Crows, take note. Houndstooth takes a takes a sexual interest in the blue-eyed boy, but it’s the non-binary, “ink-dark,” Hero Shackleby who sustains his attention. Yep, add romance to this already queer western. A larger woman, Regina “Archie” Archambault is the next member of the team—bless, Gailey for casting a curvaceous woman. The only other women is Latinx Adelia Reyes (who also has another awesome addition to her circumstance that I won’t spoil for you). Cal is the only typical western genre quick-draw member of the posse.
Gailey only writes memorable characters, even those few more who round out the cast as supporting figures, side quests, or villains. Oh, and the hippos. Each member of the caper/operation has their hop or hippo (Adelia has two): Ruby, Rosa, Abigail, Betsy, Stasia, Zahra. Each hippo has their attribute, but all humanize their companions. (You can meet the hippos here at Tor.com).
Folk and hop are imperiled when plans go awry, plans go well, and every time ferals are involved. These books involve no small amount of violence. They have some humor. They also have their heart-warming moments; I stress moments, because it isn’t the only the landscape that has a remarkable level of ferocity.
You have to read River of Teeth before Taste of Marrow, and while I thought the first book was stronger, I very much appreciate the opportunities the shift in perspectives in the second novel brought. After the first book, you’ll want to spend time with the characters who manage to survive the first. As with the first, little is guaranteed in the second, except that you’ll enjoy Gailey’s crew. Gailey’s stories really are too entertaining to pass up.
Recommended for those who love westerns, and those who usually don’t; Crew-assembling adventures (or crimes); Those who are looking for a quick read. Queer literature is still too rare, indulge. Gailey has a lot of characters of color and I did mention the not-skinny heroine. Also, if you enjoy strong, female characters, as well as fem-friendly men.