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Thursday, July 20, 2017


Author:  Sarah Gailey
Series Title:  RIVER OF TEETH
Plot Type:  Historical Fantasy  
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2-3   
Publisher and Titles:  Tor
          "River of Teeth" (5/2017)
          "Taste of Marrow" (9/12/2017)


Map showing the dam,
the Harriet, and the Gate
     After sweating my way through Christine Feehan's latest steamy paranormal romance, Gailey's fresh and inventive novella was just the burst of freshness I needed to relax, have a few laughs, and get caught up in a weird and wonderful heist story. I highly recommend this fantasy adventure, which follows a handful of extremely quirky characters as they confront feral hippos, sleazy villains, and mutual distrust in a dangerous, but hilarious, escapade that takes place in an alternate late-19th century Wild West world. In Gailey's "Foreword" to "River of Teeth," she calls this a "hippo-cowboy romp," and that that's exactly right. 

     In this crazy world, the U.S. government has dammed the Mississippi River to create a huge marshland called the Harriet, which currently serves as home to hordes of feral hippopotami (aka hops). The government's original plan was to use the marshlands for hippo ranching in order to solve the country's meat shortage, but when hippos began escaping into the wild and all the ranches went bankrupt in the Bust of '59 (1859), the government found itself in a bad situation. South of the Mississippi/Louisiana state line, the Mississippi River is blocked by the dam and the ferocious hippos. That means that merchants cannot move goods and produce down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The government can't just blow up the dam because then the feral hippos would spread out all through the southern waterways. Something must be done about those hippos, and Gailey has created the perfect man for the job: Winslow Houndstooth.

     One man is profiting from the hippo dilemma: Mr. Travers, who has managed to gain complete legal control over the entire Harriet and somehow finagled the "right to deny access to any nongovernmental person seeking entry via the Gate." Travers owns all of the land in the Harriet, and has built saloons, hotels, and a fleet of riverboats that offer gambling and women to his chosen clients. He puts the feral hippos to good use as his instant disposal system for card cheaters and other ne'er-do-wells.

     Although Gailey set her story in the mid-nineteenth century and has taken a few liberties with other aspects of history, her mad hippo scenario is based on actual truth (so...not fake news). Our U.S. Congress actually came very close to passing a hippo ranching bill in 1910. Even though I have a degree in American history, this particular Congressional action was never mentioned in any of my textbooks! For more information about this unbelievable-but-true story from our country's colorful past, click HERE (excellent 3-part podcast) or HERE (article from Scientific American) or HERE (interview on

                    NOVELLA 1: "River of Teeth"                    
     Sarah Gailey's wildfire debut River of Teeth is a rollicking alternate history adventure that Charlie Jane Anders calls "preposterously fun." 

     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.


    Winslow Houndstooth has signed a contract with the government to rid the Harriet of all of the feral hippos in exchange for a sack containing eight thousand dollars in U.S. government gold. His scheme will allow him to inflict revenge on a long-time enemy as well as making himself and his cohorts extremely wealthy. Houndstooth has led the government to believe that he will be trapping and killing the feral hippos one at a time, but in reality, he has entirely different—and much more spectacularplans. As Houndstooth and his motley crew begin to carry out their outrageous "caper" (as his associates continually label it), he reacts each time by sighing deeply and correcting their terminology: "It's not a caper; it's an operation.This on-going joke just keeps getting funnier, as illustrated by this guffaw-inducing conversation between Houndstooth and the sheriff who is on Adelia's trail:

"Houndstooth. I believe you’re in charge of this hippo caper?” 
Houndstooth looked simultaneously pained and affronted. “It’s not a caper, Mr. Carter.” Behind him, Archie mouthed the words along with him. “It’s an operation, all aboveboard. We were hired by the federal government, I’ll have you know, and—” 
Oh, my apologies, Mr. Houndstooth. I misspoke. Of course it only makes sense that the federal government of the United States of America would hire a team of down-and-out criminals for a caper on the Harriet.” 
“It’s not a caper—” (Chapter 12)
     Houndstooth is a gay Korean-British mercenary who formerly owned his own hippo ranch. He has a lot of tragedy in his past and a passionate need for revenge against those who have wronged him. His crew of societal misfits has four members: 
Regina Archambault (aka Archie) is "a round-faced woman, her hair set in a crown of braids." She is a cross-dressing con-woman with a French accent. Archie wields a "meteor hammer [that] can take down a charging bull faster than anyone." She is Houndstooth’s long-time friend and, according to her, has saved his life 9½ times. 
Hero Shackleby is "an ink-dark, fine-boned rogue" who is an expert in demolition and poisons. Houndstooth declares that, “Hero could blow up a bank vault with a pile of hippo dung and a cup of water, and they could make it look like an accident.” Hero is always referred to as "them" or "they"never "he" or "she"because Hero considers themselves to be agender. (This use of "they" feels weird at first, but you soon get used to it.)
Cal Hotchkiss is "a hatchet-nosed man with a fussy moustache." He and Houndstooth were once partners, but years ago, their relationship went horribly wrong. Cal is on the team because he's very good with a gun, and he has valuable contacts within the Harriet that are necessary to Houndstooth's plans. Cal is the token white guy on the crew, a trait that becomes important to the plot.
Adelia Reyes is "a stone-faced woman with a tattoo coiling up her neck." She is a fugitive from the law, mostly because she makes her living as a cold-hearted, double-crossing assassin for hire. Currently, she is about seven months pregnant.
     And let's not forget the non-human team members: the hippos (Ruby, Rosa, Abigail, Betsy, Zahra, and Stasia), who play major roles in the action. Click HERE to see drawings and biographies of each valiant beast in Gailey's "Meet the Hippos" post on Houndstooth and his crew treat their hippos like cowboys treat their horses, with affection, respect, and meticulous care. 

     Every story needs a villain, and this one is Travers. Gailey says this about Travers: "If he had a first name, nobody seemed to know it. If he had a soul, Houndstooth had certainly never glimpsed it." Like most villains, 
Travers loves money and power and he is backed up by plenty of muscle. According to his rules, each card cheater has three chances to change his or her ways, but after the third mistake, Travers' goons throw the miscreant over the side of his fancy steamboat to become dinner for the herd of ferals that swarm around the boat.

     In just 173 pages, Gailey does a terrific job of creating this madcap universe in which hoppers ride their hippos through endless marshlands just like cowboys ride their horses across the great plains. This world feels natural and lived-in, with every character fitting perfectly into the greater scheme of things. The action moves quickly along as Houndstooth assembles his crew and carries out his scheme with more than a few dark and dangerous hitches. Houndstooth is a wonderful lead character with his tragic past, his sincere love for Rosa, his unlucky-in-love history, and his loyal friends (and lovers). 

     Although Gailey fills in a few back-story details for each character, "River of Teeth" is a novella, not a novel, so—other than the actions directly relating to the caper—we don't get to see much interplay among the characters. I have to agree with NPR reviewer Amal El-Mohtar, who says, “I wished they'd had more room to breathe as characters, more room to interact, change, develop, combust." Gailey does plan to flesh out the characters a bit more in the upcoming sequel, particularly Hero, who has the most complex back-story of all the characters. 

     Even with her limited space, Gailey has done a marvelous job constructing her tension-filled plot. The story has everything: a fascinating mythology, sly humor, deep emotion, loyal friendship, heart-breaking betrayal, budding romance, bitter vengeance, and...hippos. What more could you ask for? Author Kevin Hearne provides my favorite blurb for this book: "Man-eating hippo mayhem is my new favorite mayhem. Gailey's debut is a gift of violent, unexpected glee."

     I truly wish that Gailey had written this as a novel because it is so much fun to read that I wanted MORE! With its hippo-ranching premise, over-the-top caper (sorry...operation), unexpected treachery, and wonderfully complex characters, this book is a treasure that is not to be missed. 

     I am eagerly awaiting the second book, in which (according to Gailey in an on-line interview), Hero and Adelia "take a front seat in the narrative." Gailey is also in the final stages of publishing her first novel, Constellations of Blood and Bone, which she describes as "a contemporary-fantasy-noir set in the San Francisco Bay area."

     Click HERE to read an excerpt on this novella's page by clicking on the cover art.

                    NOVELLA 2: "Taste of Marrow"                    
     Sarah Gailey's hippo mayhem continues in Taste of Marrow, the sequel to rollicking adventure River of Teeth. A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.

     Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."

     In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.

When this title is released, I will upload my review ASAP. 

After publication (9/12/2017), you can click HERE to read an excerpt on this novella's page by clicking on the cover art.

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