RogerBW's Blog

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey 04 December 2021

2017 alternate-history novella. In the 1850s, President Buchanan approved a plan to import hippopotamoi into the US as livestock – they'd eat the invasive plants and produce plenty of meat. Forty years later, the hippo is both ranched animal and mount… but feral hippos infest the lower Mississippi, until someone comes up with a plan to clear them out.

This is very much a book of two parts. On the one side is the setting, inspired by Congressman Robert F. Broussard's historical plan (in 1910) to bring in hippos for just that purpose. (They'd eat the water hyacinth that had been introduced for the New Orleans World's Fair in 1884, and had of course got loose.) A film treatment of the real events, "American Hippopotamus" based on an article from 2013, has been in development since at least 2014. Clearly the animals would either have died out or, more probably, spread into new niches, and hippos are profoundly deadly even in their native habitat. So in this setting we have a dam across the lower Mississippi, and "ferals" infesting the space below that and "The Gate", a miles-long grating that separates river from sea. Great stuff!

(Er, how does having a dam above the delta make the delta wetter? And where are Baton Rouge and New Orleans in all this? Both of which were settled by Europeans well before the point of divergence.)

But we also get a cast of dull and dreary characters coming into this place to do a job (apparently one single set of explosions will be enough to stampede all the feral hippos out through The Gate and into the Gulf of Mexico). The leader is getting a crew together, so we have to be introduced to each of the crew individually one chapter at a time, but in spite of all that they never seem to develop much personality: this one is gay and the leader and bent on revenge, that one is nonbinary and the explosives expert and was enjoying a comfortable retirement, this other one is female and fat (though it doesn't affect her in any way) and a pickpocket. None of them appears to be anything other than strictly European in ancestry; nor is anyone else we meet.

As far as I'm concerned, by all means change your history so that nobody objects to non-binary-hetero sexuality in 1890; the idea of the gunfightin' Wild West is basically a fantasy to start with, so arguing against other stuff on the grounds of historicity is just silly, especially considering the hippos. But did you have to wipe out all the locals when you did it? Yeah, this came after the fuss about Wrede's Frontier Magic series, which removed the Native Americans and put in monsters to make a frontier fantasy; this has rather less justification for it.

Of course there's a Villain who not only has all the power and money but seems to know what the protagonists are doing even before they've done it. (I won't say "good guys", because they really aren't.) Apart from one or two action sequences, the hippos are basically transport and set dressing for a story of betrayal and revenge in which most of the people die, starting almost as soon as the "team" has been got together for the One Big Job. (Also, two injured people can drag one out of the water.)

All right, it's a step up from Gemma Files' A Book of Tongues because hippos are more interesting than magic that does whatever the plot needs it to, but it definitely feels as though it's in the same general territory – that the author felt that having characters who were gay/etc. was enough to make them interesting so there was no need to make them sympathetic or complex too. Maybe for some readers that is enough.

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