Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

Toby Frost

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Abner Marsh is a tough riverboat entrepreneur in the pre-civil-war Deep South. When he is given the chance to expand his business by a mysterious backer, he cannot resist. But before long, Abner discovers that Joshua York, his new business partner, has some very dirty secrets, and that the fate of his prize steamboat, the Fevre Dream, is linked to the survival of a clan of vampires, led by the foul Damon Julian.

Marsh is a likeably unlikeable character: a rough and fierce person with all the gruff self-righteousness of a stereotypical self-made man. But the book charts his progress to being a better man. Abner doesn’t just learn from Joshua: his outlook is gradually changed, and he moves from being bluff and thuggish to taking a stand against the injustices of his world. The subtle and grudging changes as Abner allows his conscience to awaken are well-presented, as he realises that to care about right and wrong is not a sign of weakness. Abner never becomes a bleeding heart – other bits of him bleed profusely at times – but it’s that change from smug selfishness to righteous anger that makes him a very likeable hero, for all his faults.

Martin scores hugely for not finding the vampires and their lives appealing: although Julian gives the inevitable “lords of the night” speech, they’re rather disgusting creatures and mentally pretty weak. Their society seems to consist of cruel little rituals where one will assert dominance over another, and nothing else. Vampires in fiction are often a romantic wish-fulfilment. Martin’s undead seem more like an evolutionary dead end, and while they consider themselves to be a master race, they are really a species of parasites.

Which takes us to the setting. It’s hard to write about supernatural horror in a horrific real-life setting without it becoming kitsch (see Hellboy, for instance). Martin pulls this off, because the supernatural horror is really just a reflection of the real world. He is never crude enough to make explicit comparisons, but vampire society is like that of the antebellum South: however prettified it may be, it is literally fuelled by human blood. The metaphor of vampires as persecuted minority has never convinced me (They hate us because we are beautiful!) but the comparison between revenant and slave-owner is pretty apt. Make no mistake: this is a horror novel set in one of mankind’s low points, and Martin is not sparing about its unpleasantness.

There are flaws. Martin takes the daring decision to jump forward several years at one point, and this weakens the story, particularly because while some of the characters move on, others don’t seem to do very much at all. It rather knocks the steam out of the book (literally). But the ending is powerful and bloody. I rather liked the fact that some characters simply leave the story, because their lives take them elsewhere.

This is a well-written, entertaining book and I’d recommend it to anyone with a suitably strong stomach. However, everyone knows that there’s no money in writing about vampires, and unless he is going to remain obscure, I’d suggest that Mr Martin tries another subject. I gather that Dungeons and Dragons is quite popular with the kids these days: perhaps he could try something like that.
 

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