For some time I’ve been a fan of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. In the last few years, though, when my mind turns to that series, it’s usually either (a) to speculate about potential plot twists or (b) to wish the next book were out already. What I forget is how much I simply enjoy Martin’s writing, particularly his nuanced, flawed characters and the way he can turn a phrase. Fevre Dream, a tale of vampires on the Mississippi River in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, provided the perfect opportunity to savor Martin’s writing in a stand-alone novel with a comparatively straightforward plot.
Abner Marsh is a steamboat captain facing financial ruin when he meets the wealthy, enigmatic Joshua York, who offers to become his partner and help him build a magnificent vessel, on one condition: Marsh must refrain from questioning York’s strange habits. Marsh’s curiosity is piqued as the boat’s maiden voyage progresses, though, and what Marsh discovers will haunt him all his life. The story is told mainly from the points of view of Marsh and of Sour Billy Tipton, a slimy overseer who works for the novel’s villain. Later, York takes point-of-view duty for a chapter as he tells his story to Marsh.
Fevre Dream is the name of the steamboat, but it refers just as surely to the obsessions that drive each of the three central characters and that give their lives something of the feel of Greek tragedy. Each man has one driving goal that leads him back, again and again, into a situation from which he could have just walked away. Marsh wants to own the fastest and most beautiful steamboat on the Mississippi. Sour Billy wishes to become immortal and a fine gentleman, and have the last laugh at a society that has treated him like trash all his life. York’s “fever dream” is a secret best discovered by reading the book.
The supernatural aspects of the plot are the stuff of nightmares, and the historical aspects are just as well-written. If it weren’t for the vampires, Fevre Dream would still be a fascinating historical novel about the steamboat trade and about the cities along the river as they were in those days. I learned a great deal about the time period without ever feeling like I was being “taught.” Some of what we see is horrifying. Most of the book takes place during the era of slavery, and Martin draws a parallel between the vampires’ predation upon humans and antebellum America’s parasitic dependence upon slaves. One of Marsh’s most satisfying developments as a character occurs when he begins to see these injustices as analogous.
Just as in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin includes a great deal of gore in Fevre Dream. Some of the violent scenes are profoundly disturbing, but I can’t say they’re gratuitous. They seem fitting, helping to drive home the point that these are not nice vampires and this is not a gentle world.
Martin ends the book with a beautiful epilogue, cutting from the final combat to an evocative description of the Mississippi. This skillfully shifts the gears in the reader’s mind from action to contemplation and gives a sense of the passage of time before moving back to the “where are they now.” It’s too long to quote in its entirety here, but here’s my favorite stretch of it:
On a clear night, the water flows dark and clean as black satin, and beneath its shimmering surface are stars, and a fairy moon that shifts and dances and is somehow larger and prettier than the one up in the sky. The river changes with the seasons, too. When the spring floods come, it is brown and muddy and creeps up to the high water marks on the trees and banks. In autumn, leaves of a thousand colors drift past lazily in its blue embrace. And in winter the river freezes hard, and the snow comes drifting down to cover it, and transforms it into a wild white road upon which no one may travel, so bright it hurts the eyes.
I greatly enjoyed Fevre Dream, and you will enjoy it too if you like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the early books of Anne Rice — the vampire ones and her “straight” historical novel The Feast of All Saints. I also recommend it to Martin fans looking for a fix during the wait for A Dance with Dragons.