River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey is a Western, with hippos. That’s… basically it, really. If you like Westerns, and like hippos, you’re going to like this one. I don’t feel strongly about either of these things, so I quite enjoyed it, but feel no need to reread it. It has lots of good Western archetypes and tropes. We have the protagonist, who fell in love with hippo ranching, but had his ranch burned to the ground and then had to sell the land to a villainous casino owner; he is now a lone cowboy (‘hopper’) type, living just-barely within the law – his best friend is his hippo, and he’s out for revenge and to make a buck. He joins forces with a heavily pregnant assassin, a female con artist, an agender explosives expert, and the fastest gun in the West, to clear out a bunch of feral hippos from the river, and inevitably comes into conflict with the casino owner.
It’s all competently done, the characters are fun and well-drawn, and there were enough twists to keep it interesting. My main complaint would be that it wasn’t very fantastical – it’s alternate history (based on a real-life plan at one point to point to breed hippos in the US for meat), but beyond that, the story is played very straight. I don’t know my US history, but there’s no sense that the hippos have changed anything beyond some of the geography of the land (there was a need to build more swamps, obviously). It’s almost too convincingly mundane as a world to feel like it’s fantasy.
Where this goes on my ballot will depend very heavily on the other books – it’s doing what it set out to do, indisputably, and it’s doing it well. But… I’m just not sure that what it is doing is ambitious enough to be worthy of a Hugo.