Thursday, May 25, 2017

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

[Tor Novella]
★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended

(Alternate History; River of Teeth) Winslow Houndstooth takes a federal commission to clear feral hippopotamuses from the Mississippi valley, but he has another target in mind. (34,160 words; Time: 1h:53m)

Recommended By: Nebula+2 Hugo+2

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"," by (edited by Justin Landon), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The story does a decent job of foreshadowing some key events. We knew that half the explosives were still on the boat, for example, so the climax makes sense. Narration is transparent and dialog is natural.

Con: The protagonist and his crew are so vicious that it’s hard to root for them. The amount of cheerful killing and mutilating is hard to stomach.

Much of the story is very predictable. We’re sure early on that Cal burned the ranch at Travers’s directions. We’re sure Adelia is working for Travers when she recovers her knives so easily. And we’re sure Adelia is threatening the doctor in the epilogue.

Travers is a rather unsatisfying villain, who’s mean just to be mean. Also, it defies belief that he could blow up a major dam and get away with it, despite the destruction it’s bound to cause in New Orleans.

Several problems break suspension of disbelief over and over. First, The hippo cannot be domesticated. Domestic animals need to meet several criteria, and the hippo fails most of them: They’re very aggressive and dangerous, not social, not easily tamed, and have a very long (~7 years) maturation period.

We might swallow that as part of the what-if of the story, but these hippos are strange in other ways. Real hippos only rarely eat meat, and then generally because of dietary problems. Hippos weigh a lot, so five people are never going to pull a bull hippo out of the water. And even if you figured out a way to breed hippos for meat, it seems really crazy to want to actually ride the hippos.

On a separate note, the importation of 21st-century notions of gender and sexuality into 19th-century America is distracting. Even the bad guy apologizes for using the wrong pronoun.

A few minor problems are merely annoying. There are too many similar names. Ruby and Rosa. Adelia, Archie, and Abigail. The accent marks are frequently missing or wrong on the Spanish words. And some adjectives get overused.

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4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Well, I found this significantly more fun than you did. If you view it as coming from pulpish origins then the unrealistic nature of cowboys riding hippos isn't a concern, it's part of the conceit. While Travers is a simple Black Hat villain, I'm not sure he's much more outlandish than events surround oil or railroads in the same period.

    (I noticed the accent marks issue as well - it looks like someone did a C&P to sort out the common words but missed the unusual ones. A disappointing quality drop from this publisher)

  2. Something I've noticed about swallowing the what-if of a story is that I can handle almost anything if the details come up immediately. But if the story gives me the hard-to-believe elements a few at a time, it gets hard for me to deal with.

    As for Travers, yeah, it's true that the Robber Barons in the US did some awful things, but blowing up the dam was likely to destroy several towns and cities entirely. I think that put him into a class all by himself.

  3. I agree with the rating.

    This story did not work for me. It was not anything specific, just the whole combination, most of which is listed in the RSR review here.

    It is very violent

    1. Some people really loved it, though. I suspect part of it may be just how cute you think hippos are. :-)