River of Teeth (2017) is Sarah Gailey’s first novella-length work, and if the idea of a gonzo queer alt-history hippo extravaganza doesn’t immediately set your imagination aflame, then perhaps rich character work and a thoroughly convincing atmosphere will do the trick. Beyond that, there’s a caper (which Mr. Winslow Remington Houndstooth would like everyone to know is an operation) and a whole lot of revenge to be had.
Let’s travel back in time, shall we? Back to America in the late 19th-century, when a portion of the lower Mississippi River was dammed off and given over to a terrifying population of feral hippos, the kind who enjoy noshing on a human’s viscera; a time when women and genderfluid individuals of various races had a little more equality with the white men around them; a time when riding a three-thousand-pound hippo through a marsh was a pleasant way to spend a day. All right, this is all alternate history I’m describing, but in spite of (and because of) the ever-present danger of becoming fodder for those hungry, hungry hippos, Gailey makes the life of a hippo-wrangler sound incredibly rewarding and fun.
We’re first introduced to Houndstooth as he finishes negotiating a job with a federal agent; the specific details are teased out slowly, though we do get a glimpse here of the other crew members, each of which has a very specific part to play, a preferred method of attack, and their own unique backstories. As Houndstooth travels up the Mississippi astride his loyal “hop,” Ruby, he gathers the others, and initially they’re as much in the dark as the reader is. (Houndstooth does not do a good job of convincing anyone that this isn’t a caper, no matter how hard he insists to the contrary.)
First is Regina “Archie” Archambault, an exceptionally skilled pickpocket with more than a few surprises hiding up her sleeve. Next is Hero Shackleby, demolitions expert and poison enthusiast, brought out of early retirement by the allure of a grand adventure. Waiting aboard a riverboat casino is Cal Hotchkiss, fast with a gun and even faster with hateful condescension. As for Adelia Reyes, one of the most lethal contract killers of her time? Well, you don’t find her … she finds you.
River of Teeth is full of sensory detail, transporting the reader to campfire-lit meals in murky swamps as convincingly as midnight rendezvous in velvet-lined state rooms. Houndstooth’s motivations and goals are deceptively simple, but there’s a depth to the man — to most of the characters, in fact — and Gailey manages to spring a surprising emotional heft at the climax. The villain at the heart of this mad scheme is awful, but in a credibly cold-hearted way without swerving into moustache-twirling parody. Some of the characters’ arcs needed a little more room to breathe and develop, especially since they depend on either newly-created relationships or lengthy backstories in order to have the greatest effect, but it’s a minor issue.
I’ve read and enjoyed Gailey’s short fiction and non-fiction — in fact, she published three essays here at Fantasy Literature, which is how I first discovered her. After reading River of Teeth, I feel that I can confirm Sarah Gailey as a formidable writer who brings spectacular imagination and drive to any project she sets her mind to. I would happily read more in this universe or any other Gailey wants to create, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t happily live in this universe as well. Fortunately, a sequel called Taste of Marrow is expected in September 2017.