George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream is a lush horror of the atmospheric historical variety. Written in 1982, before The Song of Ice and Fire series began to sparkle in his eyes. Choosing this book is like flipping through a cookbook and stopping on a new-to-you recipe because it has all ingredients you love: written by George R.R. Martin, steamships, rivers, fog and good old fashioned monstrous vampires.
It’s early in 1857 when lifelong steamboat man Abner Marsh sits down with the exquisite Joshua York for a hefty dinner that ends in the business opportunity of a lifetime. And after losing four of the five boats in his Fevre River Packet Company, Marsh isn’t about to walk away. York offers Marsh comfortable pay to operate his ship for him as his partner. What seals the deal is that the ship doesn’t exist yet, York will fund him to build the steamship of his dreams, the fastest one on the river. These two men, who are so different from one another, are fast partners with grand dreams. What could possibly go wrong?
Abner’s brusque physicality and enormous appetite are a stark contrast to York’s cultured if mysterious ways. Abner sees good for good and bad for bad. York sees his life reflected back in the poems of Byron and Shelley. When the Fevre Dream finally hits the water she’s fast and more opulent than Marsh imagined. Both men fall deeply in love with the steamship. As they make their way south it’s hard to imagine how things could have worked out better for either of them.
But everything is not all apple pie and poetry. On a plantation south of New Orleans lives a brood of vamps with a leader who’s older than time and crueler. In this New World, which is not nearly as organized as the Old, they’ve found plenty of cracks to feed their thirst without remorse. This is a time when human beings were sold and never heard from again. Blood fever consumes them, but they can’t stay where they are forever.
The first half of this book reads like the kind of dream you don’t want to wake up from. Close your eyes between lines and you can see the scenes just as Martin wants you to. The author is a world building master who writes like he traveled back in time to absorb the smells and grit of this period. While he adds his own spin on the vampire as a separate species, he refrains from trying to reinvent them:
They sleep in coffins filled with their native earth, shun daylight and the cross, and each night they rise and drink the blood of the living.
You’re reminded this is a horror during the second half when the brood and their blood master see the advantages of living on a steamship, passing through river towns that are used to people coming, going and disappearing for good. Abner’s mind is his greatest weapon, not the best tag line for a vampire slayer, but it works here. The man faces monsters he never imagined existed and becomes obsessed with finding his lost ship. How can an enormous steamboat disappear?
Though the book itself isn’t scary, there are a few good moments when you fear for Abner’s side. His world was complicated enough with railroads replacing ships as the fastest mode of cargo transport, and the country reaching its boiling point on abolition. It’s always incredibly hard to read fiction that takes place during slavery, but Martin couldn’t have chosen a more perfect time for this story. His vampires thrive on chaos and division.
The eyes were black as hell itself and filled with red, chasms endless and eternal as the river, calling to him, stirring his own lusts, his own red thirst.
The reason my affections dimmed during the last half is that the scariest scenes were revealed after the fact, relayed in hindsight. It’s the difference between “They were hiding in some house around midnight when a scream told them they weren’t not alone.” and “Four months ago they stumbled into an abandoned house and found all these bodies and it was horrible.”
Wouldn’t you rather be there with the character when events unfold? The backwards glancing approach makes the reader feel safe. For me it killed the momentum and teased out the climax for so long it lost its peak.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading this book, but didn’t love, love, love it as much as I thought I would. My fault for holding it against the ridiculously high standards set by Game of Thrones and every other book so far in the series (haven’t read Dance of Dragons yet).