Fevre Dream by George RR Martin
Originally published 1982.
Reissued by Gollancz, November 2011 as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series.
Review by Mark Yon
One of the great things, in my opinion, about the success of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series is that readers who have enjoyed that series are now looking at some of his earlier work. In my view there’s a lot of his earlier work that is underrated and fairly unknown. From Dying of the Light to Tuf Voyaging (due to be reissued in 2012) and Fevre Dream, there’s other books out there from George that are worth reading.
Reissued with a new cover, to reflect the style of the most recent Game of Thrones makeover, this is an underrated gem.
Fevre Dream is a historical horror story. Set in the American South, on the Mississippi River, it’s a tale of riverboats and vampires in the nineteenth century.
Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain in financial difficulties in 1857 is contacted by Joshua York with a proposal – in return for becoming a business partner York will finance the building of a new steam boat, the Fevre Dream. Bigger and grander than anything else on the River, Abner takes up the offer and, as captain, trades up and down the river.
The enigmatic York travels on occasion on the boat, though he and his friends make the crew and passengers uneasy. They are rarely, if ever, seen during the daytime. Abner himself becomes suspicious of his benefactor : more so when he finds newspaper articles in York’s cabin about a number of strange deaths along the riverside.
When Abner confronts York with this, Joshua’s answer is that he and his ‘friends’ are vampire-hunters, using the Fevre Dream to go from case to case. Abner’s suspicions are calmed but eventually the real truth is revealed: York is actually the Pale King, a ‘bloodmaster’ or vampire King, and his friends are his clan. Though this is initially regarded by Abner with horror, York explains his life story and furthermore states that he is attempting to resolve the conflict between vampires and humans by developing a potion that may help vampires to no longer rely on fresh human blood, and so lead to a peaceful co-existence in the future.
The story becomes more complicated when rival bloodmaster Damon Julian deposes Joshua, who is forced to serve Julian, and also evicts Abner from the Fevre Dream, to use the steamboat for his own purposes. The Dream becomes a mysteriously hidden boat. Abner searches for his beloved ship, eventually finding it, but is recaptured by Julian. He escapes with Joshua’s aid, who then disappears.
Some years later Abner is contacted by Joshua, who asks the (now old) Marsh to help him beat Damon. The stage is set for a showdown between Abner and Joshua and Damon and his entourage.
This is a dark, dark novel, impressively staged and brilliantly portrayed. The oppressive atmosphere of the American South in the eighteenth century, with its decaying plantations, slavery, racism and isolated humidity, is there across every page. It is harsh and it is supremely creepy. Some of the scenes are heart-rending in their matter-of-factness. (There’s also an awesome meal scene to rival events in Ice and Fire…)
To this backdrop the characterisation is, as we have come to expect from George, sublime. Of the main protagonists, Abner is the obsessed Captain Ahab of the Mississippi, forever searching for his love, the Fevre Dream, whilst his nemesis trawls the river looking for new blood. Joshua York is, by turns, both unearthly and oddly deserving of our sympathy. There’s a definite feel of the melancholic martyr here, almost Elric-like in his timbre. Though a vampire, he is a reluctant one who bears his responsibilities heavily. His life story, told in about twenty pages, is simply told without embellishment and is almost worthy of a book of its own. In comparison, the bad-guy Damon revels in his impressively malevolent actions, yet like most paragons of evil, is perfectly justified in his own mind that what he is doing is right.
The ending is a complex powerplay between Joshua and Damon, with Abner in the middle.
It is not as complex as Game of Thrones, nor as broad ranging. It is from a simpler time, published fourteen years before A Game of Thrones began. And yet the plot, the dialogue, the pacing and the characterisation here is, to my mind, as good as that series.
I’ve said for years that there’s a lot more to George RR Martin than A Song of Ice and Fire. This book proves it. I also find it astonishing that it was unavailable in the US for over twenty years before being republished. For those yet to read it, I envy you. I suspect that, like me, you will not be disappointed with this one.
A welcome reissue. Recommended.
Mark Yon, November 2011