Taste of Marrow
Author: Sarah Gailey
A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway. Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive." In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.
A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway. Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."
In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.
Peers deeply at the darkness within.
In 1910, there was a serious attempt by Congressman Robert Broussard to enact a law encouraging hippo ranching in Louisiana. The plan was to rear hippos as meat for hungry Americans, much in the same way cows are now raised in pastures. Sadly, this dream of hippo-farming did not come to pass, more’s the pity.
Sarah Gailey’s novella River of Teeth imagined a wondrous world where America had real vision. Set in the 1900s, hippo ranches have sprung up. For some, this might be a bit much for their suspension of disbelief to cope with. Yet, it adds such colour and joy to the proceedings that any anachronism is easily forgiven.
Hippos have become integrated into American society, with riding and wrangling of said beasts carried out by “hoppers”. Introduced in the first book of this series is one such hopper, namely Winslow Remington Houndstooth. He is also many other things: a charming scoundrel, a deft knife-thrower, the proud owner of a beautiful hippo, and a man with a weakness for blue-eyed boys. River of Teeth followed Houndstooth as he rounded up a rogues’ gallery of outlaws in order to pull off a complex job and gain revenge at the same time.
Taste of Marrow is the sequel to this caper, and thus it is essential to read the first part in the series. Part two picks up a few months after River of Teeth’s explosive ending, finding our heroes in a state of disarray and in pursuit of different goals, the past months’ events having left an indelible mark. Along for the ride again are their companion hippos, as characterful as the human cast. The sequel focuses on themes touched upon in the first novella, namely obsession and the cost of the choices that people make. It expands upon them, underscoring how all relationships within the crew, no matter how strong or old, can eventually deteriorate under these pressures.
River of Teeth had some shocking moments but, in focusing on motivation degenerating to fixation, Taste of Marrow peers deeply at the darkness within. Those expecting more of the same thing (i.e. an eccentric heist story with an endearing group of characters, much like Patrick Weekes’ The Palace Job) may be surprised as the plot shifts focus, and the tone with it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Gone is “cheering for the underdogs”; in its place, Gailey has allowed the story to mature into one where she tests and pulls apart relationships, with characters forced to ask themselves the questions they’ve avoided for years: what is their happy ending, and how much are they prepared to sacrifice for it? It’s still a fun story (how could a tale containing the liberal application of hippos not be?) but there are greater emotional stakes than before.
Adding stronger flaws to loveable characters is tricky, as it can mean they become grating; on one occasion, it's hard not to shout in disbelief at the callous actions of one of the protagonists. However, in Taste of Marrow, Gailey has added another layer of humanisation to her characters, producing a realistic depiction of how one person’s crusade (however originally well-intentioned) can fast destroy them and become a burden to others. It also makes the reader realise how emotionally invested they are in the characters.
Moreover, it is the characterisation which really makes this series as Gailey has constructed a memorable and unique ensemble. In an interview for her first novella, Gailey stated she wanted to create a set of characters who were “diverse along several intersections” . It is refreshing to see this executed well in a series, without their diversity being used as tokenism. For example, a character is referred to with “they” pronouns and, whilst an important part of their identity, their gender is not their defining feature nor what solely drives them. Furthermore, Gailey’s use of language and (in particular) dialogue gives each character their own, recognisable voice. Because of this approach to the whole crew, the characters are rounded, flawed, and compelling.
The novella moves at a pace some may initially find exasperating as it slowly meanders early on. Yet, this feels designed to establish the characters’ situations and frustrations. As the plot develops, the pace suddenly accelerates, speeding towards a dramatic climax. This acceleration happens with a jolt, which is a shame as it might take the reader out of the story for a moment. In addition, it can occasionally be confusing as to how characters arrived at their destinations, with some events feeling like almighty coincidences at times. However, there is reasoning behind them, as well as a surprising call-back to the first novella, which ties the plots together in a pleasing way.
Saving the best for last, let’s talk about the most delightful part of the series: the hippos. Each member of Houndstooth’s crew has a companion hippo, ridden and cared for by their owners, often rescuing these foolish humans from the ridiculous predicaments they get themselves into. The bond between human and hippo is surprisingly touching, and each animal has its own individual character to distinguish it from the others. The only criticism is that the cast’s hippos are not featured as heavily as they were within River of Teeth, but this makes sense as they are not as fundamental to the plot in the second novella. It’s a little disappointing but ensures that an interesting element of Gailey’s alternative world doesn’t override the plot. However, there is also a continued focus upon the “ferals”, wild hippos who have developed a taste for human flesh. Gailey’s descriptions of the ferals evokes the same sense of threat as that found in a zombie survival story: the ferals’ attacks are shocking, devastating, and bleakly inevitable. When ferals appear, these are chilling moments of horror as they wreak destruction upon their all-too-fragile human prey.
Taste of Marrow is a novella about obsession and confronting who you really are. In essence, it is a story about making peace with what you want, what you can have, and whether those are the same thing. Some of the light-hearted, romping fun of the first novella is missing in this second installment, but a large amount does remain. That which has been sacrificed is replaced with character development and an increased emotional attachment to Houndstooth and his crew, with Gailey delivering an intriguing and satisfying conclusion.
Also, most importantly: hippos. What more could you ask for?