Book Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Welcome to the late 19th century in an America that never was. The federal government, seeking to relieve the nation’s meat shortages, had the brilliant idea of importing hippos and breeding them in the swamps of the southeast. This is, apparently, based on an actual proposal that was (thankfully) scrapped. However, in River of Teeth, the plan went ahead, and now most of northern Louisiana is a swamp full of vicious feral hippos (and more than a few outlaws and gangsters). Winslow Houndstooth is a man with a past, looking for one last payout to retire and live out the good life. He has been tasked (alongside his crew) with clearing the swamp of ferals. Of course, in a story like this, nothing can ever go as planned.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the title. I mean, River of Teeth? How could I pass up anything with a title like that?! Add to that a recent “oh hey, did you hear about…” from Dear Husband about (I shit you not) feral hippos wrecking up the place in Mexico. It just seemed like it was meant to be.

The book is an old-fashioned western with a hell of a novel twist. Gailey gives us murder revenge, paddle boats, hippo ranchers, gamblers, lawmen, mercenaries, gun fights, knife fights, and explosives. In short, all the things you want in your old-timey western adventure and then some. Also novel about Gailey’s story is the diversity of the characters. Let’s face it, the western (pick any genre though) with wall-to-wall white male protagonists has been done (and done, and done). Gailey brings a refreshingly varied cast of characters to her story.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this story is how short it is. At 114 pages, this is more novella than novel. I read the book in a single sitting and simply wanted more. I wanted more time and interactions with Houndstooth and his crew, I wanted more history and background of the hippo endeavor and the mess that brought about a huge swamp of death. Fortunately, there’s a second book out (and hopefully more to follow) so I will get my wish.

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.