When the US government decided to ship in hippos as an alternatives meat source, they didn’t expect for them to start running feral through the Mississippi River. Winslow Houndstooth is hired to herd the feral hippos out of the Mississippi, but the team they agreed to use seems to be more trouble than they are worth.
Why this book?: There was a sale for the ebook, and I’d heard interesting things about it! Also, feral hippos sounded badass.
River of Teeth started out well, introducing a somewhat likable protagonist and introducing the whole operation that the group they assembled would have to accomplish. Add in some Wild West feels, replacing the horses with hippos, and it sounds pretty badass, right? I mean, especially when you learn that the group is two white males, a fat French con-woman, a black non-binary person, and a Latina mercenary, it sounds pretty amazing, right?
I wasn’t aware of the diversity Gailey included until I was introduced to Hero, who is non-binary. Then Archie, the con-woman, came in, along with Adelia. I was really excited to see where this would go, but as I continued, I couldn’t help but feel as if all of the rep I was reading was artificial. And, really, it was. I’ll dig into Hero first, since that’s where I had the most problems.
Hero is introduced while they are ‘retired’, and resting at a nice log cabin. Houndstooth comes and asks them to join his ‘caper’, and they eventually agree. However, before they leave, Hero tells Houndstooth to just “ask the question”. We all know this means about them being non-binary. Houndstooth ignores the implication, and asks some random question, awkwardly avoiding Hero’s gender identity. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this, but when this happens throughout the entire book, then we have a problem. Constantly, the rest of the group would tip-toe around Hero’s ID–Houndstooth introduced everyone to each other by somehow referencing their gender, but when he got to Hero? Houndstooth once again went around Hero’s ID, saying how they were just a good team worker, and nothing else. I absolutely hated this, and how it was constantly avoided. This might have been Gailey trying to avoid messing up Hero’s gender by completely avoiding the question, but this choice ended up being worse.
Something else that happened that really bothered me was, because of Houndstooth avoiding addressing Hero’s pronoun preference and gender ID, no one else in the group would have known that Hero was non-binary, and would have known what pronouns to use. The rest of the team magically understood that Hero was non-binary, and respected that without a question. Even Cal, who seemed to be intent on disrespecting everyone in some way. Hero’s gender was just given out, and the way it was portrayed was just horrible. Avoiding the topic of being non-binary felt like dirt to the face. Hero’s gender was one of the most insincere attempts at writing a non-binary that I have ever seen.
Houndstooth and Hero were always extremely awkward around each other, and the romance that seemed shoved between them just made it worse. To be quite honest, the romance almost felt like an attempt to make Hero’s gender normalized, and not ‘different’. It was also a prime example of insta-love, Hero and Houndstooth falling in love and sharing their backstories within the day that they had met.
I had another problem with Hero, but before I get to that, I wanted to tackle the other rep that Gailey tried to include. First, Archie. She is fat. She is also described as a slimy character when you first meet her, as she is a con-woman. This just felt . . . weird and wrong. I personally can’t say much on the fat rep, but I personally felt uncomfortable with Archie and how her fatness was discussed.
There were two major things that bothered me about skin color, and it has to do with Adelia, Hero, and the hippos. Yep, the hippos. First, Adelia was literally the Latina stereotype of being a kickass, take-no-shit kind of lady. She’s pregnant throughout the entire book, and may have been hinted at being a lesbian, but I really couldn’t see her character past the basic stereotype that she was. Hero, on the other hand, is black, and that is NEVER touched on. Adelia was given multiple descriptions on her badass-Latina character, but when it came to Hero, their character was ONCE AGAIN brushed over.
But the hippos. Their value is based on what color and type they are. Ruby, Houndstooth’s hippo, is black and sleek, and is the ‘best’ hippo. The grey hippos are okay, but they make lots of noise. And than Archie’s hippo is albino, AKA white, and is extremely beautiful but can’t do much in comparison to Ruby. Notice anything?
One last thing, before I actually start talking about the plot and everything else. Hero. That one thing that I mentioned I would come back to. It’s technically a major spoiler, but I’ll put it in white text below. I recommend highlighting it, especially if you’re non-binary, and don’t want to deal with more hurt.
At the end, Adelia finds outs that Hero overheard her talking with the enemy, Travars, and stabs them in consequence. She is then caught by Houndstooth and Archie. A US Marshal comes out of nowhere, and takes Adelia off their hands, in exchange for taking Hero to a doctor. Adelia escapes, and follows the Marshal to the doctor, where he leaves Hero. The book ends with Adelia basically kidnapping Hero.
As a non-binary person, do I have to explain how it felt when the single non-binary character was stabbed to further the white male’s character arc and to further the plot into a confusing mess of what-the-fuck-is-going-on?
The ending was so confusing, that I ended up skimming that last 20-ish%. Random things happened, characters appeared out of nowhere, characters disappeared, and I really didn’t have the energy to deal with all of that. I’m not joking when I say that characters switched sides and I really couldn’t determine which characters were bad and which were good.
The beginning of River of Teeth was so good and intriguing, that it breaks my heart that it ended how it did. I feel like this book could have benefited from a lot more development and sensitivity readers.
Final Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
When I stumbled on the surprise non-binary character, I thought that I had struck gold. But as I read on, I just didn’t feel comfortable and it felt like I had been cheated out of an amazing character. There was so many problems with the characters and plot, and I just didn’t connect to anything.
Gailey’s writing was beautiful, and I feel like this book would have easily gotten five stars had it not been for Hero, the plot, and the few other problems that just hit me.
Would I Recommend?
No. I’m sorry, but if you’re looking for good non-binary rep, this is not where you will find it. My problems with the plot may have stemmed from my dislike of the characters and how I ended up skimming the last 20%, but that doesn’t erase the major problems with gender, race, and fatness.
Note: I’m also just realizing how the author obviously went to lengths for there to be no racism directed towards Hero or Adelia, despite the time period that this book was written in (1890s.)
Trigger warning for violence, murder/death, and animal deaths.
Published: May 23rd, 2017
Page Count: 121
Genre: Science Fiction/Historical/Alternate History
Synopsis: via Goodreads
In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.