American Hippo by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Although it’s set in the deep south, the novellas and stories compiled into American Hippo are unapologetically Western. Gailey’s delightful alternate-history swamp-romp on hippo-back is a caper and an operation chock full of double-crosses, revenge, kidnapping, explosions, and romance. And hippos. Lots and lots of hippos.
After the hippos (and the human characters, they’re pretty great, too), what I appreciate most about Gailey’s storytelling is that it is character-driven, and she’s not self-indulgent with her world-building. We’re not led on unnecessary side-quests so the author can showcase all the pages and pages of elaborate thinking she did about the world she created. The story moves swiftly from act to act, drama to drama. Gailey accomplishes all the worldbuilding we need in a few paragraphs, a doling-out of select details, and a reliance on the reader to bring a cultural awareness of the genre to the table. I’ve been exposed to enough Westerns and Mark-Twain riverboat iconography that I don’t need those things described to me. And if another reader doesn’t have that exposure, it’s still not necessary to understand and enjoy the story, because the point is the characters and the story, not the boats and buildings that make up the setting. The unique element of the story is the hippos, and they are characters in their own right, rather than accessories, each a unique personality and companion to their human riders (or feral monsters providing gruesome Jaws-style horror).
After I finished reading American Hippo (such a great way to kick off 2019!), I found an essay Gailey wrote for Tor.com confessing her anxiety about her sparse worldbuilding in the face of the extreme worldbuilding some authors find satisfying and enjoyable but others find intense and overwhelming, and the fun she had making the map that appears on the inside covers of the book. I think she has nothing to worry about. I am on board for more hippos, or whoever and whatever else she wants to write about.
I hope its hippos, though. More hippos, please.