Vampires on steamboats.
This was one reason I picked up this book, the other being that it’s by George R. R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels. Fevre Dream is certainly a different take on vampires, set against a background so authentic I couldn’t get enough of it. Unfortunately it lacks the fascinating characters of Martin’s more famous books, and the plot suffers as a result. I also wished I’d been warned beforehand about a certain scene, which would have made me reconsider reading it.
In 1857, Captain Abner Marsh is down on his luck, having lost his steamboat thanks to a hard freeze on the Mississippi River when a stranger called Joshua York makes him a proposition. Joshua will fund the construction of a new boat, expense no object and in return, he wants to travel along the river with Marsh – as a partner, with his instructions obeyed and no questions asked.
Marsh might stave off the temptation of money, but the dream of his life is to command a steamboat capable of beating the famous vessel Eclipse in a race. So he agrees, and the Fevre Dream is built. But after their journey begins, Marsh discovers his partner has a few unsettling secrets.
For one, Joshua keeps a scrapbook full of newspaper articles about mysterious deaths. For another, his tipple of choice is an unpleasant-tasting liquor that he brews. Marsh confronts him, and Joshua admits the truth. He’s a vampire, and his purpose in traveling the river is to search for others of his kind.
One thing I enjoyed about this book is that vampires are a different species, and they behave accordingly. They don’t protect humans, envy them, turn them into vampires, or fall in love with them. Some vampires refer to humans as cattle, but it’s these predators whom Joshua deliberately seeks out. The liquor he’s carefully brewed can slake what he calls ‘the red thirst’. Since his kind rarely – if ever – breed, Joshua believes they’ll die out if they attract attention by leaving corpses in their wake.
So the Fevre Dream sails towards New Orleans, where a decaying plantation is home to a small group of vampires led by Damon Julian. Their sole human servant, Sour Billy Tipton, stays loyal because Julian has promised to one day raise him into their ranks. Towards the end of the story, I was reading mostly to find out what Sour Billy would do when he discovered he couldn’t become a vampire any more than he could grow roots and become a tree.
If you’re hoping for nuanced villains, you won’t find them here. Julian is a sociopath who lacks any ambition other than wanting to kill humans, and at one point, he tortures and murders a baby in a scene that left me nauseated. Sour Billy is an ugly killer who dreams of becoming powerful enough to rape Creole ladies. Unsurprisingly, he’s a racist who uses the n-word a lot. Everyone with any agency is a white man or a male vampire, while the young female vampires slink around sexily.
The heroes are more fleshed out, but Martin’s trademark twist of killing sympathetic characters is in force here. The heroes’ other problem is that if Julian dies, the novel ends, so he escapes more than once thanks to their mistakes, and the story drags on until everyone finally gets as tired of waiting as I was.
That said, Martin’s writing is beautiful, evoking everything from the treacherous sandbars on the river, to the silver-banded spokes of the pilot’s wheel, to the stuffed crabs and oyster pie served for dinner. I loved learning the tricks of the steamer trade, like lard in the engines for a high-speed kick, and the action scenes are gripping. Ultimately, though, this isn’t enough to make me want to reread Fevre Dream, and I’d only recommend it to hardcore Martin fans. The ‘Mark Twain meets Anne Rice’ premise is compelling, and I wish the rest of the book had lived up to it.
I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.