Earlier this year, Sarah Gailey treated us to a book that made the phrase “alternate history western hippo caper” part of the vernacular. River of Teeth is a fun, nuanced tale of an alternate 19th century United States in which hippopotami were introduced into the environment to make up for a livestock shortage and soon overran their boundaries (something that really almost happened, save for a fateful vote in Congress). It’s a novella chock full of what we love in a debut: memorable prose, a lush setting, precise worldbuilding, and a cast of diverse characters trying their best to pull off a caper, even with the odds against them.
If River of Teeth asked why and how this hippo-hunting posse formed up, sequel Taste of Marrow asks a different question: why do they stay together? Especially with the caper is in shambles, a key member of the crew dead, and another presumed dead at the hands of a pregnant assassin?
Several weeks after River of Teeth, the feral hippos once penned into the Mississippi have been let loose, and Archie and Houndstooth are fleeing to parts left un-feraled. Thinking Hero, who stole his heart, has been killed or captured by the assassin Adelia, Winslow Houndstooth is a shell of his former self: paranoid, aggressive, bitter and boozed up, and mad with worry for his lost Hero. It’s all Archie can do to keep him sane while she searches for her own lost love. Meanwhile, Hero has been captured by Adelia, and is very much alive. As Adelia nurses them back to health, Hero is ready to cut and run, especially with Ysabel—Adelia’s squalling newborn girl—keeps them awake at all hours. But when Ysabel is taken in an attempt to blackmail Adelia into one last job, Hero stays by her side, for better or worse.
Taste of Marrow is about what happens after the caper, when everything’s gone to hell—what happens to those who were lost, and to those left behind; moving forward despite the dragging weight of the past. Each character gets their fair share of mourning their mistakes and pondering their next steps, whether it’s Houndstooth working overcome his crushing guilt at losing Hero or the killer odd couple of Hero and Adelia trying to move beyond their deadly talents and forge a better future for themselves. Adelia, who existed as the cypher in the first book—the mysterious assassin who could kill you with a toenail—grows into a fully-fleshed person, feeling the toll of her vicious trade, and the toils of a motherhood fraught with complications. The book’s most beautiful, harrowing moments come when this seeming force of nature is pushed into a corner by her own humanity.
And somehow I’ve made it sound like this book is all about the people, when all of your favorite “hops” are back and adorable as ever, carrying their human companions to new locations, and new adventures. Let us never lose sight of the hippos in this alternate history western hippo caper.
This book takes everything great about the first and does it one better. Want to know more about an incongruous group of heroes and villains? Done. Want more hippo mayhem and more high stakes scheming in a vibrant, dangerous landscape? Done and done. A Hugo and John W. Campbell Award nominee, Gailey has proven herself to be a new writer to watch, and if you trusted her to steer you through the swamps of River of Teeth, believe me when I say you’ll enjoy the hop out of Taste of Marrow.
Editor’s note: Sarah Gailey is a regular contributor to the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.