*I received an ecopy of this book via NetGalley. This has not influenced my review.*
You know how some books constantly tell you how awful a character is, and said character constantly broods about how awful they are, but then the character never actually does anything awful?
American Hippo is not that book.
Within the first chapter, our protagonist, Winslow, slit a man’s nostrils and put a knife through his eye without hesitation when the man insulted his hippo and then tried to attack him. So it was kind of self-defense, but you don’t learn how to toss a knife in the air so that it lands perfectly in someone’s eye without practice, and you don’t do it all without hesitation unless you’ve done it before. Just sayin’.
And all the other main characters? They were just as bad, if not worse. These characters, they were thieves, con artists, killers. They knew what their priorities were, they knew what kind of people they were, and they were unapologetic about it. And that was what made me enjoy reading about them, even if I didn’t quite like all of them as people or didn’t agree with some of their actions. I was shown the bad that was in them, I was shown the good, and I was allowed to make my own opinions or to simply read this story about them without worrying about good or bad. But the author did manage to make me really like and care about some of them anyway. In fact, I really want to read more about Winslow and Hero and am bummed that there won’t be more books about them!
Another great thing was how much diversity/inclusivity this book had. The main characters had different ethnicities, body types, sexual orientations, and genders. There weren’t a lot of labels used, and I don’t want to make assumptions, but I do know some had dark skin, one sometimes spoke in Spanish, one was fat, one used they/them pronouns, one was was genderfluid, the main character was either bi or pansexual, and multiple characters fit into more than one marginalized group. It also seemed to be a very accepting world they lived in (or maybe just a very accepting circle of friends).
The overall stories (plural since this book was a combo of two connected novellas and some shorts) were enjoyable too. The book was not as sci-fi/fantasy as what I normal read—no paranormal creatures or space adventures, just an alternate history—but the Old West setting (which I love) and the hippos still transported me to another world and made the story fantastical in its own way.
This book even had some romance! There was still plenty of hippos and explosions and fights, and there was nothing sexually explicit, but there was a definite romance threaded throughout. I liked it though. My only complaint about it is that it seemed sudden. I’m not sure how much time Winslow and Hero spent together, but we didn’t get to see any of that time, so their feelings seemed really strong really fast. But they were cute together.
I also enjoyed the writing. Something about it just pulled me in. I was a little confused by the POV though. Sometimes it seemed like 3rd person limited, but then it would switch without warning like it was omniscient. Not that big of an issue though since it didn’t happen that often.
Overall, I was easily drawn into this book, I loved the diverse and morally grey characters, and I really enjoyed reading about this hippo-filled Old West!
Anyone who likes alternate history, the Old West, morally grey characters, diversity, and hippos.
In 2017 Sarah Gailey made her debut with River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, two action-packed novellas that introduced readers to an alternate America in which hippos rule the colossal swamp that was once the Mississippi River. Now readers have the chance to own both novellas in American Hippo, a single, beautiful volume.
Years ago, in an America that never was, the United States government introduced herds of hippos to the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This plan failed to take into account some key facts about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
By the 1890s, the vast bayou that was once America’s greatest waterway belongs to feral hippos, and Winslow Houndstooth has been contracted to take it back. To do so, he will gather a crew of the damnedest cons, outlaws, and assassins to ever ride a hippo. American Hippo is the story of their fortunes, their failures, and his revenge.