Fevre Dream – George R R Martin
When an author is best known for writing one particular genre, or even one particular series, it can feel quite strange to read something they’ve written which is completely different. Fevre Dream was published in 1982, 14 years before A Game of Thrones, and although those who are familiar with the A Song of Ice and Fire series may still see traces of Martin’s writing voice in here, it’s a very different kettle of fish – but just as good, if not better, than some instalments of the series Martin is most associated with today.
In St Louis in 1857, Abner Marsh, the head of a failing steamboat company, meets a mysterious stranger named Joshua York and forms a partnership with him. Joshua will give Marsh the money to build the ultimate river steamboat; Marsh will then run its operations, but Joshua will have ultimate authority – and any orders he gives, no matter how peculiar, must be followed. Before long, their steamboat, the Fevre Dream, is afloat, and Marsh wants to make it the toast of the New Orleans trade. But at the same time, he is concerned about Joshua, who keeps going on unexplained excursions onshore, and can apparently see perfectly well in darkness, and only comes out of his cabin at night…yep, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.
So this is, in fact, a vampire story. Vampires are usually different to some degree in every story you read, but Martin gives a particularly good twist on it: his vampires – despite still following a few of the traditional tropes – are not undead and were never even humans, but are a completely different species altogether. It’s a unique approach and I really liked it. The two central vampires in the story – Joshua, and his enemy Damon Julian – both possess traditional vampire characteristics that look a little cliche at first: Joshua is the “refined, mysterious gentleman” vampire, while Julian is the remorseless predator who believes vampires are naturally superior to humans. But Martin develops these portrayals, giving both characters extra layers that make them more fresh: Joshua is a complex figure with an interesting backstory and a sympathetic motivation; and in the latter stages of the book, it is explained just why Julian’s twisted mind works the way it does. Unfortunately, the other vampires in the story are not so well-developed; many, like a lot of the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, are little more than names.
With the whole “vampires on a steamboat” scenario, I thought I had a clear idea of the way the story was going to go; but in fact it proved to be much less predictable, going off in different directions as complications constantly ensue. The title is actually very appropriate as dreams are a central theme: both Marsh and Joshua have dreams that they make very clear to the reader and are very passionate about, and it feels very painful to watch as they keep hitting stumbling blocks towards achieving those dreams.
As in his later books, Martin successfully creates a rich and detailed setting, this time in the American South; despite the fact that these vampires are a different race and it is not actually possible for a human to become one, he still effectively uses the metaphor of vampirism as a disease, portrayed in the deterioration and underlying sickness of the surroundings and some of the characters. There is also a chase scene – and a standoff afterward – which I particularly liked; it uses the description particularly well to create an exciting and tense atmosphere, though sadly the scene itself ends on an anti-climax.
Fevre Dream is the best vampire story I’ve read in a while. It has a fresh take on vampires, an unconventional and likeable hero in Abner Marsh, and a poignant ending – an all-around great read. Rating: 4.5/5.