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Queen of Teeth by Hailey Piper4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf the horror field has a rising star in the 2020s, that person has to be Hailey Piper, an author who exploded onto the scene over just three short years with a steady stream of short fiction, a handful of novellas, and now her first novel. If one quality can be said to define her work, I’m not sure whether I’d call it fearlessness or just a supremely confident level of not having any fucks to give. Either way, Piper never hesitates to take her ideas as far as she can get them to go, no matter how outrageous they might be, and she’s very good about not repeating herself if she can help it. She’s a fresh voice in a genre filled with so many old, tired and overworked tropes they might as well be collecting Social Security.

If there’s anything wrong with Queen of Teeth, it would probably be that the subject matter will automatically put some people off. Those people aren’t likely to be fans of body horror in the first place, so they won’t be troubled. Mostly, Queen of Teeth is an exhilarating mashup of dystopian science fiction, body horror, political satire, apocalyptic carnage and lesbian romance that grabs you with every single tentacle it has and doesn’t let go. It’s fast paced, but not so much that it feels rushed, and it has a way of balancing black comedy, pathos, and gore in such an entertaining way you conveniently keep forgetting to ask yourself if you’ve lost your mind reading a story like this in the first place. Horror fiction is capable of a lot more than is usually demanded of it, and Piper knows how to steer us into those uncharted waters.

The story is set more or less in the near future, in an alternate timeline where Nancy Reagan succeeded her husband into the presidency, and then everything got worse from there. This one little joke, passed off as if it’s nothing right at the beginning of the story, nevertheless has barbs that stick very deeply. The Reagan era was particularly heartless in its policies towards the LGBT community, and so it makes sense that it’s a period of American history that can serve a bellwether in queer horror fiction. Piper’s previous novella, The Worm and His Kings, was set in Manhattan during the first Bush term, and it’s also informed by the echoes of that era’s institutional homophobia and transphobia.

Yolanda Betancourt (nickname “Yaya”) is a young woman in Newark known as a chimera. Decades before, a pharma giant named AlphaBeta Pharmaceuticals released an engineered virus into the general population, apparently just for the hell of it. In some pregnant women, this caused their fetuses to develop with more than one set of DNA, essentially one twin absorbing the other. But when the suppressed twin begins to develop itself both physiologically and mentally, long after the person has been born, you now have a case of Sibs. Not only did AB Pharma not face any legal consequences for this, they successfully lobbied and sued until they obtained intellectual property rights to the actual bodies of chimeras, who now have to submit to monthly examinations by a corporation absolutely not motivated by compassion for their health.

Yaya first notices the teeth deep inside… well, deep inside her following an evening tryst with a woman named Doc, whom we soon learn works as an agent for AB Pharma. But soon there’s more than just teeth. There’s bone, and sinew, and muscle, and ever so many tentacles and spikes and even more teeth, and Yaya’s cleft is now open right up to the collarbone to accommodate her new twin, whom Doc decides to name Magenta. Magenta likes peanut butter, which sometimes refers to actual peanut butter but also to human bodies and brains when it can get them. And get them it can!

Doc, meanwhile, is dealing with unresolved guilt from an incident many years ago in Kentucky, when she encountered a teenage girl mutating just like Yaya and Magenta, and it ended in tragedy. Doc begins to question her own subservience to her employers, her past cowardice in taking a moral stand to save a life. And it’s all dovetailing with growing feelings for Yaya (which I will say is perhaps the one plot element I would have liked to see built up sooner than it is).

I’m a reviewer, Jim, not a doctor, so I can’t speak to how exact the science is on how the chimeras work. But it doesn’t matter because there’s never a problem suspending your disbelief for it. I don’t think you’ll find another story delivering such scorched-earth commentary on a culture that is, right now in the real world, whether the topic is abortion or trans rights, bizarrely obsessed with eradicating women’s bodily autonomy as a concept. That this novel was written and published in 2021 just prior to, not only new draconian abortion laws in Texas, but the complete legal immunity granted to the Sackler family against further litigation stemming from the opioid crisis, just goes to show how tight a grip Hailey Piper has on the political pulse of the day. Queen of Teeth is the kind of ballistic art that comes from radicalized (and I would say just) anger.

But the story itself isn’t angry. It is, by turns, shocking, tender, compassionate, heart wrenching, hopeful, as explosive as any Marvel movie, and hysterically funny. It’s Vagina Kaiju Fight Club for furious women. And if anything I’ve said about it in this review has you slack-jawed in silent, disbelieving shock, then welcome to the world of Hailey Piper. Just be aware, you’re probably gonna get bodied.