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Book Review: Fear what lies beneath in “The River Has Teeth”

The Southern Gothic genre holds a weirdly special place in my heart as a Southerner. There’s nothing like an author translating the eeriness of the rural South into a novel that'll leave you closing your curtains every night. Erica Waters's debut YA novel “The River Has Teeth” is a no-holds-barred, Southern gothic horror of witches, monsters, and murdered young women.

After Natasha’s sister goes missing, her abandoned car is found in a wildlife park known as the Bend to locals. With no leads and apathetic law enforcement, Natasha takes matters into her own hands by enlisting the help of Della–the descendant of a long line of witches who channel their magic from the Bend to find her sister.

Yet, Della has her own issues–her mother has transformed into a monster after a spell went wrong and could possibly be behind the disappearance of Natasha’s sister.

Natasha and Della aren’t your average YA characters–their rage and morally-gray actions motivate them to take their power back at all costs. The combination of Natasha’s anger and Della’s exhaustion explodes into darkly humorous banter, questionable crime-solving methods, and a light queer romance between the two teenagers. Their anger could be misconstrued as extreme to anyone who hasn’t experienced the questions of believability or lack of empathy from law enforcement. Yet, as the circumstances surrounding Natasha’s sister come to light, it becomes clear their rage is valid.

As someone who has experienced the same lack of fucks and empathy by law enforcement and just, you know, men in general, it’s refreshing to see it so well-portrayed in a YA novel. Few books accurately illustrate the rage and exhaustion involved, but Waters handles the theme with care without diminishing Natasha nor Della’s feelings and experiences.

This isn't your usual YA thriller with a blend of murder mystery, paranormal, and Southern gothic horror. Although it’s listed as YA, the novel's dark elements and adult nature lean more towards New Adult, in my opinion. Waters perfectly captures the hair-raising atmosphere of the Deep South, and its forests–which every Southerner knows can be scarier than any haunted house.

Every plot twist and development were more suspenseful than the last–although the big reveal at the end could be seen from a mile off. Despite the apparent clues toward the murderer, the climax builds to a nail-biting battle that’ll leave you wondering who makes it out alive–and who doesn’t.

As mentioned above, the themes Waters weaves into “The River Has Teeth” are written with startling clarity and authenticity. A fair warning–many of the feminist themes can be hard to read and focus on law enforcement and society at large not caring about missing women–specifically women of color¬–that still happens across the nation. Themes of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and grief flow underneath Natasha and Della’s development throughout the novel.

Dark, eerie, and exuding Southern Gothic realness, “The River Has Teeth” is a must-read for horror fans. Waters hit it out of the park for a debut novel and writes Southern Gothic horror like she was born to do it.

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