American Hippo – Sarah Gailey

American Hippo (River of Teeth, #1-2)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 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.

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Dragon Coast (Daniel Blackland #3) – Greg van Eekhout

Dragon Coast (Daniel Blackland, #3)Dragon Coast by Greg Van Eekhout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read books one and two, don’t read this review!

Throughout the Daniel Blackland series, van Eekhout explores interesting angles of familiar heist story tropes. Heist stories often build up the crew as a found family, and also often have a protagonist who eschews their blood family for the one they created, leading to a confrontation between these two groups to resolve the action or emotional plot (or both). There is often, but not always, a romance between the protagonist and another member of their found family.

Daniel Blackland was orphaned and abandoned. He built a family from other orphaned and abandoned children. He briefly had a romance with a member of his found family. His found family and his blood family come into conflict to resolve both Pacific Fire and Dragon Coast, but not in the ways you might expect. None of these things are the emotional core of the story, for Daniel or his foil Gabriel.

I was consistently pleased throughout the series, and especially in Dragon Coast, with van Eekhout’s exploration of responsibility and consequences, particularly those that characters willingly embrace. When Daniel rescued Sam at the end of California Bones, he knew what he was taking on—a life on the run, the fight to protect Sam from power-hungry enemies. When he killed his golem brother, Paul, at the end of Pacific Fire, he did it to protect Sam, even though he knew the immediate consequence was the destruction of his blood family and the potential to ever repair those bonds. He did not know the long-reaching consequences, and he faces them in Dragon Coast. Not only must he pretend to be his doppelganger in enemy territory to acquire a rare bone he needs to rescue Sam from the firedrake, Daniel is confronted with the legacy of his actions that will follow him for the rest of his life. And he chooses to take it on, because he just can’t stop himself from being a strangely honest thief. When he has stolen something he didn’t mean to, he owns up to it, even when, by doing so, he creates a trap he can’t escape.

Heist stories often contain themes of consequences, but rarely are they so nuanced as what I found in these novels. Where Daniel shrugs off the consequences of messing with the powerful, he is willingly ensnared in the consequences of his responsibilities to his own family. Gabriel is such a well-crafted foil, as he grapples with the yoke of responsibility and consequences he willingly took on and then unexpectedly finds himself chafing under. He, too, creates a found family with Max, and also faces the responsibility he owes to that bond.

I love the development of these characters. Daniel grows in each book, as he gets older, and becomes a father, and confronts what’s left of his blood family from behind the safety of his brother’s face, which is really no safety at all. He sees a life that could have been, is tempted by many possibilities for a life that could be, and in the end makes the same choice he always does: sacrifice. Not every character needs to fundamentally shift personality to show change and growth. There’s also something satisfying about the capacity to stay true to yourself through increasingly difficult circumstances, and to make peace with who you are in your bones.

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