Come for the Man-Eating Hippos, Stay for the Diverse Character Representation

January 8, 2019 Audio Books 9

Hiya Bookworms!

I mentioned in last week’s Brain Dump that I’d picked up River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey because the premise was so bonkers to me. A quick recap for you:

In the 1800s there was a very REAL proposal within the US government to import hippos into the Louisiana bayou and farm them as a source of meat. As all current Louisianans know, there are plenty of animals you need to watch out for in the bayou, but hippos are not among them. Sarah Gailey’s novella series is a revisionist “BUT WHAT IF HIPPOS” take on the situation. And you know what you get in this scenario? Hippos escaping their livestock farms and forming colonies of brutal feral hippopotami, plus rugged hippo cowboy types slinging knives and being shady.

At first I wasn’t sure that the tone of the book was really working for me because I wanted more hippo silliness than Wild West, but it grew on me. It grew on me to the point that when I finished the first novella, I clicked on the second installment of the story, Taste of Marrow, without hesitation. I’ve got a lot of thoughts here, fam.

While listening (audiobooks are my jam) to this, I found myself tweeting things like “dang these hippos just keep eating people.” To which my scientifically minded friend Michelle was like “that’d be a deal breaker for me, hippos are herbivores.” During River of Teeth, the actual eating was kind of implied, but I wagered that it could have been more murdering with jaws and leaving carcass to rot. Perhaps I’d misinterpreted. The further into Taste of Marrow I got, though, it became pretty clear that these feral hippos were in it for dinner. Sure, the killing part was cool, but then they’d fight over carcasses and stuff, which makes it obvious to me they were noshing on human flesh. So. If you can’t get past literal man-eating hippos, this might not be for you.

If you CAN get past mental leap of feral hippos eating humans (and heaven knows what else, honestly) the series has a lot to offer. The ragtag crew of hippo cowboys are each fascinating characters in their own rites, but the one that really wiggled into my brain matter was Hero Shackleby. The crew responsible for these hippo capers (sorry, Houndstooth, OPERATIONS) is entirely comprised of thieves, con artists, assassins, and general malcontents. Hero, master of poisons and explosives, is portrayed as gender non-binary. All the characters use “they” for Hero’s pronoun like it’s NBD, and since we’re not given much (if any) backstory for most of the characters (at least so far), the reader has no indication of whether Hero was assumed male or female at birth.

I LOVE THIS. I’ve read a lot of books, some of which have contained non-binary or transgender characters. But those books have almost always been ABOUT being trans or non-binary. I’ve never read a book where it’s just a thing that’s there and not particularly critical to who the character is as a human. It’s refreshing AF. Come for the man-eating hippos, stay for the diverse character representation.

Only the first two novellas were available on Scribd (my main audiobook source these days), so I’m not sure if there are more out there just yet. I’ll be on the lookout, though. In the meantime, please know that any purchases made through links on this site might net me a small commission. Last quarter I brought home a whole 66 cents, so.

9 Responses to “Come for the Man-Eating Hippos, Stay for the Diverse Character Representation”

  1. Amanda

    I feel like this sounds so bizarre I just have to give it a shot! And I really don’t think I’ve read anything yet with a nonbinary character. I feel like I should start with something well done.

    • wordsfor

      The plot is just so out there, but the character rep is great. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  2. Michelle

    You ALMOST convinced me to ignore man-eating hippos. I mean, Hero Shackleby?! That is such a great name I want to read it for that alone.

    • wordsfor

      I totally get it. The whole adventure western thing is not really my scene, which is why I was so surprised and tickled to find such awesome rep! For what it’s worth, they’re short, so it’s not much of a time commitment at least.

  3. Rhian

    John Scalzi has a book (well a couple now) Lock In where the narrator is never referred to using a gendered pronoun. Other characters are so it’s not a feature of the world in the story, but more (I guess) an experiment in how a reader may perceive gender in writing. There are two versions of the audio book – one read by a man and one by a woman.

    P.S. The books are also good reads aside from the ‘thought experiment’. They’re described as ‘science fiction police procedurals’ which combines a couple of my favourite genres so they were right in my wheelhouse.

  4. DoingDewey

    I have to admit that the wild premise is putting me off of this one, but I’m hearing such good things about it, I may have to give it a try 🙂

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