Written by George R. R. Martin
First published in 1982 by Poseidon Press.
Edition used published in 2011 by Gollancz
This is a book of unlikely heroes and villains. The first of the former is Abner Marsh, who is definitely not your usual male lead. He is gruff, fat, ugly and stubborn and the owner of a steamboat company on hard times. He provides a very enjoyable narrative voice with his plain (often politically incorrect) speaking and, in any other author’s hands but George R.R. Martin, he may have run the risk of being either a dumb or an unlikeable character. However, Abner is shown to have brains as well as brawn, able to get out of as much trouble as he gets into, is a capable businessman and a loyal friend to those who’ve earned the privilege, even those that were socially lower than him. However, he still falls into the trap of being too curious for his own good and breaking his promise to mind his own business when it comes to his partner, leading him to discover that said partner is a vampire.
That vampire partner is Joshua York who gave Abner the funds needed to build the eponymous Fevre Dream. He starts off classically mysterious but, in his backstory chapter, we learn about his high ambitions for himself and the rest of his kind. He starts off ashamed of what he is, in danger of falling into the emo vampire cliche, and tries everything to stop himself killing people. Then, he does something quite unheard of – he pulls himself out of his depression and, with his new sense of purpose, finds a way to conquer the ‘red thirst’. His biggest weakness, however, is a tendency for over-optimism, which leads to his defeat at the hands of a more stubbornly evil ‘bloodmaster’ vampire. However, Joshua still manages to stick to his principles against all odds and I think he’s one of the best good male vampires in fiction.
He’s a very stark contrast with Damon Julian, the bloodmaster who brings him to heel. Damon Julian is an incredibly creepy character with almost unbeatable powers of mesmerism, a manipulative personality and a total unwillingness to accept any way of life but his own. He could be truly terrifying if he had the ability to be a proper leader. He keeps his clan in check with mesmerism and false promises but he doesn’t lead them anywhere. He simply sequesters himself in dark decrepit opulence and allows his human servant to make the important decisions concerning food and finances, not even hunting for himself. He simply lives because he doesn’t want to die, not to do anything meaningful for himself or anyone else. If he wasn’t so frightening, he would be quite pathetic.
The same can be said of his human servant, Sour Billy Tipton. It’s established that, like Abner, he was born in poverty and desired something better from himself but, unlike Abner, had neither the knowledge nor the will needed to do it. He’s aptly named for he chooses to wallow in hatred and bitterness for everyone around him rather than do anything to make himself better. This made it easy for Damon Julian to take advantage of him. Despite the seemingly clear servant-master relationship, Billy Tipton is the one who makes most of the meaningful decisions about arranging feeding opportunities for the vampires, keeping their finances in order and approaching Joshua York. If he had only realised it, he could have easily manipulated Damon Julian instead of the other way round but, instead, he is reduced to a rather sad servant figure that sinks lower and lower as the book goes on.
I might be tempted to give the characters full marks but, unfortunately, there are no well-developed female characters. There are a few female vampires, like Valerie, but they don’t get enough time or focus to warrant a paragraph on. So, I have to deduct a few marks for that.
8 out of 10 drops
I can safely say that all of the jargon surrounding paddle steamers is correct. As is the idea that lard was used to make a steamer go faster in a race. Turpentine and resin were also used as emergency fuel though forcing the steam pressure to rise during a race was still pretty dangerous and increased the chance of an explosion, which was referred to but dismissed by the characters in the book.
It’s also interesting to note the differences between Indiana and Louisiana concerning slavery. Indiana was a ‘free state’ also as soon as it was established as a state in 1816. A court ruling made slavery illegal in Indiana in 1820. Louisiana, on the other hand, clung to slavery until 1864 and, surprisingly, was rather liberal with slave rights by the standards of the time, using the French Code Noir. Slaves could be punished with corporal punishment but not tortured but, then again, it is Sour Billy Tipton and slave catchers operating outside the law that torture slaves in the book so it’s quite plausible that some people still did it.
It’s interesting that most of the book was set in 1857. Not only was American on the brink of civil war but that was the year of a famous Supreme Court ruling was made in that year that stated black people were not officially citizens and therefore cannot sue for freedom. Far from settling tensions, this only served to push the country further towards the Civil War. Though this isn’t mentioned in the book, abolitionists are still looked down on with scorn and the phrase ‘Bleeding Kansas’ is used throughout to refer to the violence breaking out between pro- and anti-slavery groups immediately before the civil war. It’s George R.R. Martin, you can expect anything less than the presence of excellent historical research.
Which is also what I see in reference to vampire myths. I’m delighted to see lots of obscure vampire names flung about. Some of them do refer to werewolves (vilkakis and vrkolak) but it’s established that, in this canon, vampires and werewolves are one and the same so that’s reasonable. It’s clear the author’s done enough research into the genre to know which historical figures are more commonly associated with vampires e.g. Vlad Tepes and Erzabet Bathory. However, he chooses not to make them vampires in this world, which I’m rather pleased with. Not many authors would do that.
The research is top notch, which is just to be expected from such an esteemed author
10 out of 10 drops
You can’t say it’s not an original setting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a vampire novel set on and around a paddle-steamer on the Mississippi in pre- and post-American Civil War. I’m not sure I’ve even read a vampire novel set around Civil War America at all (unless you count Eclipse but that was just in a flashback). I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that gives the possibility of an artificial elixir that can completely stave off ‘the red thirst’. I’ve read books about animal blood being used as a substitute but never a completely artificial creation. An interesting concept which really needs to be used more. As does the in-depth analysis of vampire physiognomy described by Joshua, including the effect of human blood on vampire blood and the presence of new unidentified organs. Plenty of room for exploration there.
All vampire cliches except mesmerism and sun damage are dismissed in short order. However, the process of mesmerism is well described and, when Damon’s doing it, it’s terrifying. The description of sun damage is very gruesome, even more so than in Anno Dracula. Like Anno Dracula and many other vampire novels, sun damage is reduced with age but the big thing Fevre Dream adds is that the red thirst is reduced over time too. Books have played with the idea of ‘newborns’ having less control over it than ‘elders’ but they’ve never put forth the idea that vampires could outgrow it altogether if they live long enough. That is certainly original but, in this case, the vampire in question still does it because he can. A big change is making vampirism hereditary, thus vampires can never be made. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a book before.
The element of choice recurs again and again. Joshua and Damon chose their own paths, one to higher ambitions and the other to corruption and stagnation. However, it’s impressed on the reader than humans have more choice than vampires in who they follow. In Fevre Dream, vampires use mesmerism on each other to decide a battle of dominance. Whoever wins is ‘bloodmaster’ and, as a show of fealty, the losing vampire is compelled to offer up their own blood to the victor as often as the victor pleases. Once a vampire is brought under a bloodmaster, they are physically compelled to obey them, even if they don’t want to fulfil the orders. A unique and nicely grotesque concept.
Unusually, there’s a large time skip in the middle of the book of about 13 years, completely skipping over the American Civil War in just one chapter. Abner had no reason to get involved much so neither did the book. Nice to see an author resisting the urge to throw their characters into the middle of history and to show off their historical knowledge. Still, Abner does fall prey to the classic trap of being too curious for his own good and being pulled into the vampire’s world as a result. It’s rather grating in this novel as Abner constantly declares that he’ll mind no other business but his own. The use of Lord Byron throughout the book could run the risk of being cliche, especially as many of the best known of his poems are used. However, a few obscure ones are used and used fittingly so I’ll let that slide.
If it were not for that, it would be a lovely mix of originality and reimagined cliches.
8 out of 10 drops
It’s George R.R. Martin at the helm (pun intended). You can expect nothing less but a richly developed world, never forgetting the unpleasant sides of life, that keeps a firm entrenchment in reality despite the supernatural buzz around it. Through Abner Marsh and Sour Billy Tipton, we see two halves of American society: the ‘free states’ and the ‘slave states’. Thankfully, the author does not cartoonishly paint the former as totally good and the latter as totally bad. Both sides of society are given a full, uncompromising analysis and neither are perfect but one is still a lot better than the other. The locations are described with lots of lavish detail, especially when it comes to food (a classic George R.R. Martin-ism) and in reference to things dying and decaying. The river turning blood red in the sunset is a particularly persistent statement. This is especially prevalent in New Orleans. The many descriptions of rot, corruption and decay associated with Damon Julian are most prominent. In a long speech, Joshua eloquently puts into words how all the fragrant spices, beautiful buildings and grand tombstones are there to obscure ugly truths.
Now, for the vampire society and there’s a nicely detailed history to go with it. Again, the author offers up a Biblical explanation with the vampires being the children of Cain but he extends it by adding myths and legends of a ‘pale king’ that will lead vampires to their own fabled city. It’s established that vampires never create for themselves but take the ideas of humans as well as their blood. There was a history of persecution which drove them to near extinction but the books makes it clear that the classic people we associate with vampirism e.g. Vlad Tepes and Erzabet Bathory were simply humans acting on evil impulses. Good to see those myths debunked. It’s not just humans vampires have to worry about either but their own biology. They are born, not made, and breeding happens extremely rarely as, in contrast to common beliefs, vampires are very low on genuine sex drive. Perhaps, it’s not surprising as childbirth is often fatal in female vampires, though human medicine can save them. Again, vampire society feeds on humans in more ways than one.
George R.R. Martin does what he does best – paint a three-dimensional world without flinching from the unpleasant parts or over-emphasising the pleasant ones.
10 out of 10 drops
The story alternates between Abner Marsh and Sour Billy Tipton’s point of view with one chapter in between devoted to Joshua York’s backstory told in his own words with almost no dialogue which reads rather like a nineteenth century character’s backstory. A fitting tone. The chapters also provide locations and dates, even if it’s repeating itself, which is very considerate to the reader in a multiple POV story.
It’s certainly a gripping story and as much about Joshua York’s dream of conquering the red thirst once and for all as is Abner Marsh’s dream of defeating his steamboat rivals. Though it’s clear from Damon Julian’s previous scenes that Joshua’s plans are not going to work, it’s hard not to wish him to succeed. Speaking of Damon Julian, some of his scenes are some of the creepiest I’ve read in vampire literature (and that’s saying a lot) and Sour Billy Tipton is just as bad, if not worse. Be prepared for some uncomfortable reading in his chapters.
And, yes, Joshua and Abner do fail at first. And second. In fact, it takes several attempts for them to defeat Damon Julian but I guarantee that you will be on the edge of your seat at every venture. Throughout the book, there’s George R.R. Martin’s classic use of ‘reality ensues’ and there’s not a deus ex machina in sight. If the characters want something, it’s not going to just be handed to them and terrible failure is a real possibility, unlike in other books when you know the main characters will have a glorious victory in the end, even if that’s not realistic. The ending of the book (without spoiling it because it is worth reading the book for) turns out to be rather wistful and bittersweet where only one dream is fulfilled.
There’s only one very annoying thing about the book: it draws out the mystery of Joshua’s vampirism for far too long. From Sour Billy Tipton’s first chapter, where we get our first look at Damon Julian, most readers would put two and two together and guess what Joshua is. Some would even guess straight from the first chapter when he insists on meeting York at night. That aspect of the book is made even more tedious by Abner suddenly turning into a nosy detective, despite his constant declarations that he’ll mind his own business. If it weren’t for Tipton’s chapters sprinkled throughout, the first half would drag on quite a bit.
Once you get past the Joshua York ‘mystery’ however, the book picks up the pace nicely and is all in all an excellent story. I just wish we could see more points of views and more detailed stories from the characters, especially the female ones. Good thing the author learned that lesson in his later books.
8 out of 10 drops
Overall = 44 drops – B Negative