River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

6/10 Not perfect but definitely worth a read

I received an advanced copy of River of Teeth via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Sarah Gailey and Tor.
River of Teeth is an alternative history/fantasy Western adventure where the cowboys and mercenaries ride hippos instead of horses. Winslow Houndstooth is the main protagonist and he has been assigned a mission by government officials which involves brutal feral man-eating hippos and a shady gangster who runs a canal-based gambling empire. For this mission, Houndstooth is able to assemble his own entourage which includes a chubby con-woman, an ex-best friend sharpshooter, and a deadly assassin.
This is quite a short tale that took me just over two hours to read. It is a highly ambitious premise and is one that, before picking up this book, I could never have envisaged in my craziest dreams so I have to compliment Gailey's amazing imagination. This alternative America is similar to what could have become a reality as is admirably explained by Gailey in the novella's forward. I won't try to explain as I would dumb the historical influence down compared to how the author presents it but it engaged me from the start.
Houndstooth's gang are an interesting enough bunch but unfortunately, due to the length of the narrative, they don't really evolve past the brief descriptions I mentioned in the second paragraph. River of Teeth includes a same-sex relationship (or does it?). Some moments between the couple are sweet and romantic but the relationship itself seemed unlikely to me from the character's initial interactions to where it ultimately leads in a short space of time. Unfortunately, the love depicted seems almost rushed.
This story is definitely an adult read. There are numerous grim and gruesome scenes from the very beginning, some of which incorporate those deadly feral hippos. There was one moment I found truly grim and upsetting. This alongside other harsh scenes infuses the story with a sense of dread. As well as these murderous beasts, Houndstooth's crew each have their own trained hippo and one of my favourite aspects of this story is the gangs' relationship with their 'steeds', who are even given cute names such as Ruby and Abigail. Furthermore, when our crew go off to complete certain sections of their missions they leave the hippos to play and hang out. Cute. One aspect of the story that confused me was the issue that one of the characters is referred to by everyone as if he is more than one person. 'They tried not to blink.' 'Their name.' I originally thought that he was perhaps schizophrenic but would friends refer to someone who has schizophrenia as 'them' instead of 'him'? The reason for this is not explained which is a shame as it could have made a cool revelation. I may have missed something yet I am usually quite attentive. (Edit - my friend on Goodreads advised this may be a gender-neutral character which is an interesting device and quite common in certain fiction apparently. If this is the case, which after analysing is probable then 1) this is the first book I have read with such a character and 2) what does it say about me that I read this individual as a man that was then involved in a gay relationship when nothing sex descriptive was discussed. Re-evaluating, this is a really interesting concept and I wish it had been more transparent during my initial read instead of leading me to a small degree of confusion.)
To conclude, I think some of the characters relationships could have been fleshed out a bit more. The finale of the book was brilliant and exhilarating. The book concludes nicely although it poses a few questions regarding what occurs next. This is an enjoyable and exciting hippo-fuelled fantasy western and I will be picking up Taste of Marrow when it is released in September. Not perfect but definitely worth a read.

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