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Literature / River of Teeth

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Houndstooth: It's not a caper, Hero. It's an operation. All aboveboard. All very well-planned and prepared-for.
Hero: And what's the plan?
Houndstooth: I was hoping you'd help me come up with that.

River of Teeth is a novella by the American author Sarah Gailey. It was published in 2017 and is based on a true early 20th Century idea by the United States government to introduce hippopotamuses to the Louisiana marshlands to use them as livestock and alleviate meat shortages. However, the Congress never followed through with the plan.

This novella pretends that it did, though a couple decades earlier. With mixed consequences.

To make this possible the Mississippi river had to be dammed up, creating a lake known as the Harriet. But now thousands of feral hippos have made themselves at home there. Winslow Houndstooth, a reknowned hippo wrangler — better known as a hopper — is offered a lot of money to assemble a Caper Crew and solve the feral hippo problem. Though, to be fair, he takes the job in equal parts for the money and for the potential to enact revenge on the man who burned down his hippo breeding farm and now rules the casino boats which have made the Harriet a widely-known lawless place.

It's a Wild West story in which the cowboys ride hippos.

River of Teeth is followed by Taste Of Marrow.

River of Teeth provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Acquired Poison Immunity: Hero has acquired a poison immunity by taking small doses of poison with their iced tea each day, though it's never specified which poison in particular it is.
  • Action Girl: Archie not only runs around in breeches and rides her albino hippo Rosa through the bayou, she is not afraid to fight feral hippos hands on using her 'meteor hammer'.
    • Adelia Reyes has no trouble at all keeping up with her teammates and staying on top of the action even though she's almost 8 months pregnant throughout the story.
  • Action Mom: Adelia Reyes
  • Action Pet: All the riding hippos of Houndstooth's gang are action pets, but his own Ruby — a particularly well-bred Cambridge Black — is absolutely deadly and practically invisible in the marshlands.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Cal has been madly in love with Adelia ever since he met her a decade before the story starts (it's hinted this is part of the reason he started working for Travers; he thought she might like him better if he was more than a ranch hand). Adelia is...less interested, for several reasons.
  • Alternate History: This novella explores what might have been had the United States government gone through with the idea to introduce hippopotamuses to the Louisiana marshlands to alleviate meat shortages, exploring what could potentially go wrong, but also right.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Adelia says her baby does not have a father, and never will, but might well have a second mother someday.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Hero's gender is not explicitly described during the story (they are probably nonbinary, but more specifics never come up), and the narration uses gender-neutral pronouns when talking about them. It is made clear that Hero does not conform outwardly to any gender and several characters seem confused, though only the bad guy makes any verbal note about it. Hero seems prepared to avoid questions regarding their gender and is surprised when Houndstooth does not pry any further even after they become lovers.
  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: Archie is shown to have a fluid gender identity, fluctuating between mostly presenting as a woman and periods of wanting to be seen as a man. She points out how though it may seem weird to them, enough money can convince any tailor to make her a quality suit.
  • Anachronism Stew: Hero is so smart he invents the remote detonator. Far less plausible is how he makes it small enough to fit inside a pocket before the invention of the transistor.
  • Anti-Hero: Winslow Houndstooth is introduced as a rude, gun-toting and knife-wielding hopper with a Dark and Troubled Past, who doesn't belong anywhere and rides a vicious, gold-toothed hippo bred to for stealth and battle. Said hippo named Ruby is presented as his only true companion and reason to keep going. He is a promiscuous loner sleeping with both men and women and takes the high-paying job he is offered more for the possibility of taking revenge on someone than the actual money. In addition, the narration goes out of its way to point the reader to how much Houndstooth is not a hero. In fact, when he chooses to go through with the job despite all odds he chiefly does it because he promised Hero to make them a hero, not because it's the right thing to do.
  • Artistic License Economics: The idea that raising hippos for meat could be economically viable, given that they're highly aggressive, difficult to keep contained due to their strength and aggression, have a slow reproductive rate, and have very restrictive habitat requirements. But hey, it's awesome.
  • Ascended to Carnivorism: American hippos are apex predators. Domestic hippos usually restrict themselves to fish, birds, and the occasional dog, but feral hippos will kill and eat any human they come across.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Archie is both big and beautiful and knows how to use that to her advantage. Cal Hotchkiss tries to get a rise out of her by calling her fat, only to get shut up by everyone else, and Houndstooth acknowledges that one reason he hired Archie for their caper was that she can charm anyone within minutes. Archie herself points out that she's such a successful thief because nobody suspects a fat beautiful woman of having such nimble fingers.
  • Blade Enthusiast: Adelia spends most of the time she is with the gang with polishing and sharpening her knifes, of which she is extremely fond and which she uses exclusively when fighting, despite having access to guns. (When you ride animals that spend most of their time in water, this is actually quite practical) Since she is a known contract killer, nobody is particularly surprised.
  • Boom Town: Played With. Echoing the California Gold Rush, this Alternate History of America had the Great Louisiana Hippo Rush which drove many would-be ranchers to the area around the southern Mississippi and Baton Rouge to stake their claims, swelling the area's population.
  • The Caper: Played With. The story involves Houndstooth assembling a Caper Crew of the usual suspects and the target is a corrupt businessman running several casino boats, however, the goal is not to rob him but to remove thousands of feral hippos from the lake where the aforementioned corrupt businessman is feeding cheating customers to them. Preferably without him noticing until it's too late. The operation, as Houndstooth insists on calling it, is also sanctioned by the federal government. This stops none of the crew members from calling the entire thing a caper and treating it as such, much to Houndstooth's annoyance.
  • Caper Crew: Houndstooth assembles a gang of which one half is chosen by him and the other by the federal agent who gave him the job. This includes himself as the leader and coordinator, Hero Shackleby as the Demolitions Expert and Master Poisoner, Regina Archambault — better known as Archie — as a pickpocket and conwoman, Adelia Reyes as a contract killer and Houndstooth's former employee Cal Hotchkiss as a kind of inside man whom they can use to purchase the explosives Hero needs for their bombs without drawing too much attention. Though, as Houndstooth himself points out, it's not a caper but an operation. All aboveboard.
  • Card Sharp: Subverted. Cal Hotchkiss is introduced as a potential member of the Caper Crew Houndstooth is about to assemble and as someone who makes his living at the cards table. He then quickly proceeds to have his left ear cut off for being caught cheating and eventually is thrown to the feral hippos to die because he never learns his lesson. As it turns out, Houndstooth didn't want him for his nimble fingers but for his connections.
  • The Casino: Travers runs an entire chain of casino boats on the Harriet, including pleasure barges where his guests can rest from losing all their money.
  • Cowboy: Played With. The setting is the Wild West and the main characters are cowboys in every sense except that they ride and herd hippos instead of horses or cattle, respectively. They are called "hoppers" within the story.
  • Crazy-Prepared: According to Houndstooth, Hero is not only crazy-smart but also always crazy-prepared for any eventuality. Despite there being little chance that their plan might go wrong and the bomb's Hero prepared may not go off, Hero prepares a back-up plan anyway. Don't cha know, they end up needing the back-up bombs.
  • Critical Failure: The feral hippos need to be flushed DOWN the Mississippi river and down to the Gulf not UP the river to infest half the waterways in the Eastern US. But Travers has other plans in mind.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Houndstooth used to be a hippo rancher, the most talented at breeding hippos in all of the United States. He'd worked for fifteen years to save up the money to buy his own ranch. It was burned down by Cal Hotchkiss who was working for Travers by that point and was eager to impress Adelia Reyes. Houndstooth had to watch 100 of his beloved hand reared hippos burn alive, which set him on a downwards spiral and forcing him to sell the land as well just to settle his debts. His mount Ruby was the only hippo left alive and his love for her is one of his only reasons to carry on at all.
  • Demolitions Expert: Hero Shackleby is hired by Houndstooth based on their reputation as both a Demolitions Expert and a Master Poisoner. Mainly it's Hero's job in the gang to devise a plan on how to scare the hippos out of the Harriet by using explosives without demolishing the already cracked dam. Not only does Hero manage that, they also have a back-up plan on hand in case that is not enough fire power.
  • Does Not Like Men: The reason Adelia does not like men is never explained. She claims to not need a husband and to only have slept with Cal because she wanted a baby. She refuses to even entertain the fact that said baby may turn out to be a boy, and points out that maybe, just maybe, her little girl could have a second mother in the future, but if not, that's just as well.
  • Emotionless Girl: Adelia is always described as having a blank expression and cold eyes. Fittingly, she is a ruthless Professional Killer. When at one point Archie catches her off-guard with a question, Adelia shows mild surprise and Archie notes how that's the first time she's seen Adelia show any emotion at all.
  • Epic Flail: Archie fights with what she calls her 'meteor hammer', a length of chain with a metal ball attached to one end, which she swings around her body to get momentum and then throws aiming at her target.
  • Everyone Looks Sexier if French: Regina Archambault AKA "Archie The Con"
  • Fastest Gun in the West: Played With. During their introductions round in the Harriet Inn, Houndstooth introduces Cal Hotchkiss as the "fastest gun in the West" to the crew, only for Cal to insist that he's the fastest gun anywhere. When Cal then immediately questions why Houndstooth is the boss, Houndstooth deals with him faster than Cal can blink, establishing who really is the fastest anything anywhere.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Travers is a sleek and well-spoken man who is always impeccably dressed and exceedingly polite, even when he is cutting someone's ear off or throwing them to the feral hippos for the act of cheating at cards or burning down someone's ranch because they refused his offer. He is also not above threatening someone in public, he will simply be very polite while doing it.
  • Five-Token Band: Played With Although all the members of the team live or have lived in the same region of the US, they're pretty diverse in race and nationality. Except Cal.
    • Archie is white and French
    • Adelia is Latina
    • Houndstooth is probably East Asian (Based on the book cover art and some descriptions in the text) but was born and raised in England
    • Hero is African American and non-binary.
  • Hair-Trigger Explosive: Triacetone triperoxide, aka the "Mother of Satan".
  • The Gambling Addict: Cal Hotchkiss is unable to Know When to Fold 'Em at the cards table. His introductory chapter involves him getting part of his left ear cut off for cheating at cards, but the first chance he gets to play again after that, he's back to trying to cheat. It swiftly ends in him getting caught and thrown out the window to be eaten by feral hippos.
  • Has a Type: The first chapter establishes that while Houndstooth may not care about the gender of whoever he's sleeping with, he is known for going for expressive eyes, preferably green or brown ones, though blue will do as well.
  • Hazardous Water: Used throughout the story but especially when the gang is traversing the marshlands south of the Harriet. Since hippos dwell in the water and can navigate the marshlands unseen through it, and the feral hippos in the area are especially vicious, traversing the bayou during the day is dangerous and nobody wants to go near the water at night at all. Despite that caution, nobody sees the feral hippo before it attacks and kills Neville.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Ever after the Great Louisiana Hippo Rush, hippopotamuses have become the mount of choice in the area. They're better suited to the newly formed environment and can go where horses would simply sink or break their legs. Everyone has adapted, including inns, which now have water holes to house the hippos of their patrons.
  • If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: Played Straight (although gender swapped) when Archie has a brief heart to heart conversation with Hero after they become involved with Houndstooth.
  • The Leader: Houndstooth is the head of the gang not only because he is the one to assemble it on behalf of the federal agent, but also because he's a charismatic Anti-Hero who's the actual Fastest Gun in the West and the other crew members either fear or respect him.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: After a feral hippo takes out one of their crew, it's noted that there's no sign of a recent repair to the Gate and it's speculated that Travers bribed the rangers to let one of them through.
  • Malicious Misnaming: When Cal is drunk he mispronounces Archie's first name in an attempt at a lewd pun:
    "Actually, cherie, it's Regina. Rhymes with Pasadena."
  • Master of Disguise: Archie is the most skilled conwoman around and an expert at disguise and acting, passing as both a Southern Belle and as a Southern Gentleman at different points of the story.
  • Master Poisoner: Houndstooth hires Hero Shackleby based on their reputation as both a Demolitions Expert and a Master Poisoner, but since their former talents are more relevant to the job the only time any poison comes into play is when Hero slips it into Houndstooth's drink on their first meeting.
  • The Mole: Played With. After they are attacked by a feral hippo outside of the Harriet, Archie proposes the possibility to Adelia that the crew may have a mole among them. The natural suspect to turn to is Cal Hotchkiss, since he'd been working for Travers until recently and could have been threatened by Travers into providing him with information. It turns out that Adelia Reyes has been the mole all along, having been payed by Travers to not only reveal the crews plans but also to kill them all should the need arise.
  • No Endor Holocaust: When the question is raised of what anyone living downstream of the Gate, not to mention the Coast Guard, will think of being inundated by hundreds of man-eating feral hippos, Houndstooth brushes this off as someone else's problem. It's likely this is the attitude of the federal government as well, which is probably why they're hiring a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits in the first place.
  • One Last Job: When Houndstooth comes calling, Hero quickly agrees to do one last job despite having officially retired because, as Houndstooth surmises correctly, being retired turns out to be rather boring for Hero, though they make it clear that they plan to retire for good after this job, preferably with Houndstooth.
  • Oral Fixation: Cal Hotchkiss is never seen without a toothpick in his mouth, occasionally two, likely a habit he adopted as a coping mechanism after he quit smoking. The intensity with which he chews on them varies with the emotional intensity of the scene. Multiple times when a conversation becomes heated he bites the toothpick to splinters without paying attention.
  • Pet the Dog: Within the first two chapters it's clearly established that Houndstooth has no problems with killing a man just for threatening his beloved hippo Ruby. His casual violence is contrasted with his kindness to a friend (the innkeeper he is chatting with as a he kills the man who attempted to poach her ducks on her private marsh) and the way he dotes on Ruby and talks to her lovingly.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: When Houndstooth suspects that Hero may try to poison him when they first meet, he pointedly knocks the glass of sweet tea off Hero's porch rail, only for the tea to hiss and immediately eat through the rosebush it lands on.
  • Politically Correct History: Sarah Gailey has admitted the lack of discrimination towards her Cast Full of Gay isn't realistic, but handwaves this as due to the changes required to bring about this particular alternate history.
  • Pregnant Badass: Adelia Reyes is very pregnant when she kills a large, feral hippo with a knife. She is also not beyond working as a contract killer despite her advanced pregnancy, or swimming through a lake infested with feral hippos to get away from pursuers.
  • Professional Killer: Adelia Reyes is known as the deadliest, most ruthless contract killer of the day. She has no code of honor, taking contracts on everyone as long as the money is right. At the end, however, it is implied that she missed vital organs on purpose when she knifed Hero, though her reasons remain unclear.
  • Rancher: Houndstooth's Dark and Troubled Past includes having been a hippo rancher, the most talented at breeding hippos in all of the United States. It had taken him fifteen years to save up for his own ranch and then several more to build it up to its eventual size and reputation. The ranch was then burned down by Cal Hotchkiss who had run over to Travers.
  • Redemption Quest: Part of why Hero joins the team is in an attempt to live up to their name and do something Heroic.When Hero is stabbed and cannot help finish the job, Houndstooth is dedicated to seeing it through so that Hero will be able to be proud that their plan was a success.
  • Retired Outlaw: Hero Shackleby is a retired Demolitions Expert and Master Poisoner who's bought themself a little house in Louisiana and spends their time sipping poisoned iced tea on their porch. For about a year. They become so bored they jump at the opportunity Houndstooth presents to be active again and do One Last Job that could give them a chance to leave a positive legacy.
  • Revenge: Houndstooth takes the job he is offered partly because it gives him a chance to take revenge upon Cal Hotchkiss for burning down his hippo ranch. It is eventually revealed that Cal did it on behalf of Travers, who wanted Houndstooths land and to get him back for refusing to introduce a more vicious strain to the feral hippos of the Harriet. Houndstooth is fairly consumed by his desire for revenge and wants to kill first Cal, then Travers. He does manage to see both of them dead by the end.
  • Running Gag: It's not a caper, it's an operation.
  • Small-Town Tyrant: Travers rules the Harriet. Through various means involving business machinations and the occasional burned down ranch he has managed to secure the exclusive right to own businesses on the Harriet. Though technically he has to follow federal law as much as everyone else, the Harriet is in such a remote location and has gained enough reputation as a lawless place that he basically does what he wants, including throwing cheating customers to the feral hippos and ordering around the rangers assigned to the Gate.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Hero sneaks poison into the iced tea they offer Houndstooth during their first meeting, then demonstrates that it's safe by drinking from the same glass. Since Houndstooth knows their reputation as a Master Poisoner, he is not fooled and refuses the drink.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Adelia Reyes seems like the stock Emotionless Girl who is hired to overlook the operation, but not only is she the only one on the team to actually be a known murderer (among various levels of outlaws and criminals) and a contract killer, she is also being payed by Travers to kill the other team members.
  • Tomboyish Name: Regina Archambault prefers to go by the nickname Archie, even though she has a very feminine demeanor. It is eventually revealed that she is gender-fluid and occasionally prefers to present as male.
  • U.S. Marshal: Gran Carter is a U.S. marshal, but seems to be rather unimportant to the events other than introducing information about Adelia Reyes, whom he is pursuing for murder. Turns out he is behind requesting from the federal agent that Adelia be added to the gang in order to bring her to the Harriet and into easy reach of Carter, since she's managed to slip his pursuit for years now.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Several characters are irked by being unable to place Houndstooth's accent, especially since he's known to be from England and they expected him to sound British. They also tend to dismiss his explanation that his accent is unplaceable because he's spent decades in the Unites States by that point, and in different areas of that, too.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Played With. When she learns that the gang needs a white man with a mustache to run a crucial errand — and their former candidate is not available — Archie promptly throws on a very convincing disguise of a white, mustachioed man. Everyone's astonished at how handily she had such a disguise available and thinks that she may be crossdressing due to being a conwoman, but Archie reveals that she is actually gender-fluid and sometimes simply feels like a man and wants to be seen accordingly.
  • The Wild West: Or the Wild South in this case. The novella is set towards the end of the 19th century around the southern part of the Mississippi river and has gun-toting gunslingers, outlaws, gamblers and remote bars just waiting for a fight. That the entire area has become hippo country only adds to the fun.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Archie, a cunning thief and conwoman, likes to disguise herself as a proper lady because nobody ever suspects a fat woman in a custom-made dress to have such nimble fingers.