By Alex Wallace
Louisiana Representative Robert Broussard’s 1910 proposal to import hippopotamuses to the United States was an odd occurrence, but not necessarily one unfamiliar to the readership of Sea Lion Press. It has, by stroke of miraculous coincidence, been used both by John O’Brien in his wondrous Sea Lion Press book Bearfish, as well as in the Hugo and Nebula-nominated River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. I have come to quite like Gailey’s work, after reading their novella Upright Women Wanted which I reviewed for Warped Factor (note that Gailey uses they/them pronouns).
Gailey posits a world where hippos were imported to the United States, not unlike Broussard’s proposal; however, Gailey’s world has their introduction occur in the nineteenth century. The result is a story that feels like a Western in many key ways, with the sense of a frontier of civilization that is slowly but surely expanding its tendrils westward, annihilating anything that opposes it.
It also feels like a Western in terms of its characters; you have an interesting bunch of misfits that are, in all honesty, the most fun part of the book. Gailey’s dialogue is swift and snappy, but never to the point that these people sound like less than people. They have a collection of traits that fit each other like hand in glove, even as they poke and prod at one another, inadvertently (or otherwise) getting a reaction. River of Teeth is a very good example of an ensemble cast, and one that many alternate history writers could learn from.
River of Teeth also has a plot that has been trod many times in Westerns, namely a heist-like plot (although the objective isn’t theft). They will loudly insist that their plan is an ‘operation’ and not a ‘caper,’ but the setup consists of rounding up an interesting group of characters by offering them money to accomplish an illicit goal. This gives you an opportunity to see all sorts of arguments and otherwise fun interactions. It’s The Magnificent Seven meets Ocean’s Eleven.
The antagonist is yet another Western trope: a business owner with malicious ambitions, and who has committed a rather grave offense against one of your main characters. Once again, it’s well-trod, but Gailey imbues it with a sense of economic injustice that makes it better than certain offerings of that trope.
If there is a major weakness of the novella, it’s the hippos. They are magnificent beasts, yes, but overall I found that they were mostly decoration of the heist narrative. I personally would have liked if they had more active roles in the plot, rather than simply being alternatively amusing, cute, or shocking as the narrative needs them. They’re never quite given what they’re due, I think.
River of Teeth is a simple, fun alternate history. It is reminiscent of Turtledove in one of his lighter moods, or perhaps John Birmingham. It takes an odd event of history and twists it around to make a memorable result, and it is one that deserves the accolades it has received.