Bite-size Books: River of Teeth

Book cover;In a past that nearly happened, hippos are a common feature of the American wetlands. Winston Houndstooth has a government charter to herd the dangerous ferals out of the Harriet and into the Mississippi Delta. But Winston wants to do more than make some money. He wants to get revenge.

Yes, honestly, there really was a proposal to introduce hippos to America – Sarah Gailey seizes on this almost-too-good-to-be-true concept and – with a few judicious tweaks (because hey, once you’ve got hippos, you might as well) – gives us swampland cowboys.

I was a bit worried that this would mean a certain type of story and a certain type of cast – you know, the all-male, all-white, tobacco-spitting stereotype – but I should have known better. After all, this is Sarah Gailey we’re talking about. Yes, the character archetypes are very familiar, but we get a crew of many colours, genders and sexual orientations who are bribed by more money than you can say no to to sign up with Houndstooth for his hippo-wrangling caper operation.

The government is expecting a year-long effort of capturing ferals one by one and carefully transporting them out of the Harriet; Houndstooth has other ideas. It’s not technically illegal and it’s not technically fraud, but he’s certainly not going to share the details in case anyone disagrees. Similarly, his crew are not technically criminals – no, wait, yes they are.

Houndstooth’s reputation is no murkier than that of any hopper, but he hires an inveterate card shark; an expert conwoman and sneak thief; a pregnant assassin; and a retired demolitions genius (who may be the most honest of the lot, but no doubt has scores in their past that would put them on the wrong side of the law). And if their tangled pasts and current attractions complicate matters from the get-go, that’s nothing compared to Houndstooth’s simmering vendetta and the unwelcome attention of Mr Travers, undisputed lord of the lawless Harriet with his floating casinos and heavy-handed enforcers.

While the characters are endearing they’re pretty thin, but we learn enough about them for me to be sold on reading their further adventures …in fact, I’d happily read a spin-off about the former or future adventures of any one of Houndstooth’s crew, who are all more interesting than Houndstooth himself.

With its mixture of traditional tropes and modern twists, River of Teeth is entertaining and cinematic (seriously, Hollywood. Hippos, cowboy hats and paddle steamers – what are you waiting for?). If some plot developments feel a little staged, I never felt cheated – everybody but Houndstooth knows this is a caper – and the pieces are put into place with just enough foreshadowing that you can enjoy the rollercoaster.