Reissue April 2012
Mass Market Paperback 480 pages
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
It seems every other book on the shelf of the science fiction and fantasy section has a vampire in it, whether the vampire is sparkly, menacing, or a dark-hero. Thirty years ago (1982) before the vampire became commonplace, and frankly lost some of its menace and even uniqueness, George R.R. Martin published Fevre Dream, a novel that blends the southern gothic with the vampire story into a nearly perfect novel to some acclaim, but a novel that has rightly deserved more attention thanks to A Song of Ice and Fire.
Abner Marsh is a man down on his luck; while considered a good steamboat captain, his most recent ship was destroyed in icy water. Joshua York, enigmatic man to say the least, sees something in Marsh that he thinks will be a key to his mysterious goals. The two men met and despite Marsh’s warnings to the contrary, enter a business arrangement to build and operate the greatest steamship to chart the waters of the Mississippi River – the Fevre Dream. The novel is set against the back-drop of the American South shortly before the Civil War, Martin’s novel features a great mix of characters many of whom are black men, both free and slaves.
Since York financed the entire steamboat, he requests a great deal of privacy from his partner – Abner is not to question or pry into Joshua’s idiosyncrasies such as his daytime sleep, odd trips during the night, or the strange concoction he drinks. Of course curiosity being a difficulty thing to stave off, Abner does pry and learns that York is a vampire. Though through York’s enthralling backstory, we learn he is not exactly what the vampire myth would lead one to believe. At his heart, York wishes to substitute the need for human blood with a concoction of his own creation in order to quell the red thirst that drives vampires to consume human blood.
In a parallel narrative, Martin introduces Damon Julian, also a vampire and whose actions more closely reflect to the evil vampire that has come to be the accepted model of the blood sucker. Julian lives a decadent life in the dark, the plantation which he took over is fraying at the edges and Julian’s reputation in the slave community and the region in general is becoming unsavory. What’s even more unsavory is Sour Billy, the human who keeps Julian’s world in order during the day. Few characters I’ve encountered are as slimy and disgusting as Sour Billy Tipton, in other words, he’d probably be pals with some of Martin’s more lurid characters from A Song of Ice and Fire like Roose Bolton and there’s a part of Sour Billy that reminded me of Ike Clanton as portrayed by Stephen Lang in the film Tombstone.
With two vampires – one trying to put an end to the human (or cattle as Julian refers to people) feeding and the other wishing to remain true to his ways. Martin switches viewpoints throughout the novel to show both sides of the vampire. The parallel between slavery and Julian’s thoughts about human cattle is called out by Julian himself through his constant derision of York and his wish to become more like the cattle.
A tricksy element to include is the phonetic spellings of the dialect utilized by the characters. Perhaps the writer to employ this tool to greatest effect is Mark Twain, a writer and former riverboat captain himself. Martin employed this tool quite well himself, lending another layer of authenticity to the narrative. This combined with the scenes in Julian’s mansion as well as the Fevre Dream herself help to add to a cohesive atmosphere of the novel that through many of the small nuances helped to keep my absorbed in the whole of the novel.
Six years earlier, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire and the superficial similarities between the two novels are hard to ignore – both take place in the south, with much of the action focused on a ‘gentleman vampire.’ One of the most fascinating elements to Rice’s Chronicles was the backstory/history of the vampires as a race. Martin does quite possibly a better job in one book with his vampires – we learn of the history of the vampire solely through Joshua’s voice. While this works to a large degree, I find it more successful than Rice’s history more for what is left unsaid and told for Rice left seemingly no stone unturned. A little bit of mystery is stronger than knowing the full scope in this case.
Readers wishing to explore a nearly perfect vampire novel that has more in common with the original vampire novel Dracula than with the sparkly daywalking vampires overcrowding the world would do themselves a great favor and dip into the waters with Fevre Dream. I doubt they’ll put it down until they finish reading it through to the last page.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford