This alternative history book takes as its premise the “what-if” of: what if feral hippopotamuses had been introduced into the bayous of Louisiana. This was apparently an idea that was considered in the real world, presumably by people who didn’t realize that hippos are one of the most territorial and cantankerous creatures in nature. Those who’ve read the writings of the explorers / adventurers who made their way through Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries will be well aware that hippos were among the most feared creatures faced by those expeditions — rivaling black mamba and lions, and not at all like the cattle they were expected to be.
The first part of the novel consists of a hippo wrangler of British origin, named Winslow Houndstooth, building his team of hippo wranglers Magnificent Seven style. Houndstooth has a contract from the federal government to drive feral hippos out of a marshy river basin called “the Harriet.” Houndstooth also has a plan to do this dangerous job in a way that—if it works—will make the job quick and easy while exacting revenge on his archenemy, a man named Tavers who operates gambling riverboats on the Harriet. The story is as engrossing as it sounds. Dangers abound for our protagonist and his team of misfits – misfits of varying reliability, and —like George R. R. Martin—Gailey isn’t afraid to kill off a character.
The introduction of hippos isn’t the only way in which the story is alt-history. It’s also set in a world in which people of various sexual orientations and gender identities are much more open with their sexuality than they would have been in the Louisiana of the early 20th century as we know it. (Note: It’s not clear whether it was the introduction of hippos to America that created divergence in the parallel timeline that allowed for this progressiveness, whether it was a more open societal outlook on sexuality that facilitated the introduction of hippos, or whether these are independent events.)
At any rate, while gender and sexual orientation issues are quite prominent in the story, there’s only one area in which this disparity between historical reality and the alt-world became a distraction for me. I should point out that there would be no distraction in a science-fiction or fantasy story, as there is in historical fiction, because the author can create or destroy societal mores and norms as she wishes in a non-existent world. Anyhow, the one distraction I referred to had to do with one character, Hero, for whom the plural pronoun is used throughout. I must admit that I spent a few pages trying to figure out whether Hero had two heads like Zaphod Beeblebrox before I concluded that it was an attempt to deal with gender identity (I think.) I will say that the character development is skillful and Gailey does a great job of producing characters that evoke love or hate but not indifference.
I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick read, has likable and loathable characters, and builds tension throughout. There is a second book that I understand can be read independently of this one called “Taste of Marrow.” I have not yet read it, but probably will.