The River of Teeth has a killer concept. It riffs off a cockamamie scheme to deal with invasive vegetation and a meat shortage in America by importing hippos en masse. In Gailey’s world, Congress went forward with the scheme (at a slightly different time than proposed), and instead of a Wild West we got wild bayous in Louisiana full of hippo-riding cowboys and riverboat casinos. How could you screw up such a great concept? Let me tell you in excruciating detail, gentle reader, because this book is terrible.
There has been a lot of back and forth about message fiction over the last few years. Frankly, I like message fiction, provided that it is well done. But of course, like anything else, it often isn’t. And it’s worse than that. I have a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It publishes some great short fiction. But it also publishes some duds, like any magazine. Some of it I just bounce off of for whatever reason, but the very worst stories published there are almost invariably the most leftist, the wokest. Not because that necessarily leads to bad fiction, but because it helps sneak bad fiction that would otherwise be rejected by the gatekeeper in by appealing to the editor’s biases. I say that because River of Teeth is by far the worst Tor.com novella I have read, and it is by far the wokest.
I have much more to say about how that ties into the issues with the book, but first some exposition.
Winslow Remington Houndstooth is putting together the operation (never a caper, a joke that got old to me long, long before it got old to Gailey). He’s going to make a pretty penny driving the feral hippos infesting the lower Mississippi into the Gulf, but he has a more personal motive: revenge. Revenge for the arson that cost him his ranch and his beloved breeding stock of hippos. He is bisexual. This is not relevant, but is emphasized.
Four more round up the team for the operation (never a…nevermind). Archie is a con artist and thief. She is fat. This is not relevant, but is emphasized.
Hero is a demolition expert. Hero is evidently multiple people, as they are only referred to using a plural pronoun (I should cut Gailey some slack here; the limitations of the English language are not her fault).*
Cal is a gunslinger. He is a drunk, cheats at cards, works for the big bad, and certainly betrayed Houndstooth previously. You would think any and all of those would be relevant, but the others mainly seem offended that he is a white boy (yes, really):
“We can’t do this without Cal.” He began to pace the suite, running his hands through his hair.
Hero didn’t look up from their whittling. “If you’re so beside yourself about it, Winslow, I can chew on toothpicks and sling racial slurs with the best of ’em. Might need to practice some, but I’m sure I can get in fightin’ shape by mornin’.”
Houndstooth laughed—a genuine, easy laugh—and then sat heavily on the bed next to Archie.
“Look around the room, Hero. What’s missing?”
Hero glanced around the suite. “Palpable body odor.”
Houndstooth laughed again, but this time, the laugh seemed forced. Adelia and Archie exchanged a glance.
“We’re missing a white boy,” Adelia murmured, stroking her belly.
“So what?” Archie huffed. “If we need one so bad, I am sure I can drag one back up here for you, Winslow. There’s no shortage.”
Really, you had better reasons to be a bit glad. Oh, and this is a western, if a weird one. A gunslinger is the sort of thing that would come in handy in, say, the fight at the end of the book. Of course it would have been good not to hand over your guns to the big bad too. (Don’t just hand over your guns is the most effective political message in The River of Teeth.)
Adelia is a contract killer. She is also very pregnant, which would seem pretty damn relevant, but has the main apparent purpose of giving her an excuse to say things like this:
“When my little nina is born, she will ride with me, and she will be just as strong as I am. Stronger, perhaps.”
“What if it’s a boy?” Neville asked, clutching at the saddle.
“It won’t be a boy.”
Neville stared at her for a few moments without speaking, his eyes lingering on her belly.
“You are wondering about the father,” she said, unsmiling. Neville stammered an incoherent denial, his blush destroying his credibility.
“There is no father,” Adelia said. “There is a man who gave me the child I wanted from him.”
Neville stared hard at his hands. “Alright ma’am,” he whispered, mortified. She grinned at his embarrassment.
“I am not ashamed, boy. I have no need of a husband. This girl will have no need of a father. Perhaps a second mother, someday—but if not?” She shrugged. “It makes no difference.”
Contrary to what the movies might lead you to believe, contract killing is not conducive to single parenting.
There is also an evil casino owner standing in as big bad (so long as the ferals rule the dammed up Mississippi, it isn’t good for anything but casino boats). He doesn’t twirl a mustache, to my recollection, but he is otherwise a bland plot device, showing up exactly when and where you would expect him to, doing exactly what you would expect him to do.
Gailey does decent work when she can bear to be subtle. An unasked question about Hero calls back to and contrasts with an indirect question regarding the contrast between Houndstooth’s appearance and his accent early, and an unasked question about Hero a bit later. The romance between Houndstooth and Hero is touching and vulnerable. I love the fact that the Bureau of Land Management isn’t paying Houndstooth to solve the problem; they’re paying him to make it the Coast Guard’s problem.
But Gailey rarely has the confidence as a writer to make anything subtle. She usually opts instead to hit the reader over the head with it like a meteor hammer. And while it was the extreme wokeness that had me rolling my eyes, that’s a distraction from the fact that this simply isn’t a good book. I made the mistake of picking up The River of Teeth at the same time as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core. Burroughs’ short novel zips along; Gailey’s novella drags despite its length. Very little happens, and what does happen is dull and trite. Reading without the benefit of a map, I was left very confused by the geography. The map clears some things up, but also makes clear that the climax relies on a 19th century remote detonator working at a distance of over 50 miles. The action set pieces are limp and too few. The plot twists are embarrassingly obvious. Instead of a fully satisfying conclusion, we get a hook for a sequel that, no, hard no.
If you’re looking for a weird western, you would be better off picking up The Builders, also published by Tor.com and edited by Justin Landon. Or picking up Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, which succeeds at much of what The River of Teeth tries and fails at.
The bottom line is that The River of Teeth never should have been greenlit as is. It is a book with major issues in essentially every aspect beyond the premise. It doesn’t work as a weird western. It doesn’t work as grimdark. It doesn’t work as a caper. The premise does make it work as alternate history, but I’m bored by alt-history that doesn’t have an interesting story to go along with the premise. And there is a meaness to it that turned me off, though it may appeal to the sort of reader who cheers when a character of the right ethnicity and gender dies.
But the hippos? The hippos are awesome.
2 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of The River of Teeth from the publisher.
*I’ve given up on my opposition to the use of “they” to refer to a single person. It remains clunky, but there really isn’t a better option. And I shouldn’t give Gailey crap for Hero—Hero is the only decent character in the book.