No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, January 01, 1997

Fevre Dream -- George R R Martin

At the 1995 Worldcon, George R. R. Martin – who pursues the dual paths of editor and author – said that, rather than stick to one genre, he preferred to write one or two novels which would explore that genre, and then move on. A Game of Thrones, his latest novel, is epic fantasy; he has also written space opera and heroic fantasy. Fevre Dream is Martin's slant on the vampire myth; the story of a Mississippi riverboat, its owner and its captain. Abner Marsh’s career as a steamboatman seems to be over; the harsh winter of 1855 has destroyed all his boats, and his hopes with them. On an April night in the Planters’ Hotel, the mysterious Joshua York makes Marsh an offer he can’t refuse – a brand-new sidewheeler, bigger and faster and more beautiful than any other boat on the river. All that York asks in return is that his friends can travel free of charge. It sounds simple enough, and although Marsh is suspicious of such largesse, the deal seems straightforward.

Only when the Fevre Dream is cruising the waterways of the Mississippi and her tributaries does Marsh begin to realise that the situation isn’t as rosy as he had thought. Joshua’s friends are an odd crowd; they only appear after dark. There are dark rumours of what York does alone, on shore, at the dead of night – and uglier whisperings of a curse upon the Fevre Dream. And eventually Joshua himself "fesses up"; he leaves the boat during those unscheduled midnight stops at deserted timber mills and riverside houses to hunt vampires. Vampires like himself.

Only gradually does Marsh come to accept this; he’s a practical man, and vampires are the stuff of old stories to scare children. An encounter with York’s enemy, Julian – who believes that human beings are prey – leaves Marsh convinced that vampires are real: finally he begins to understand Joshua York's dilemma. York is trapped by his wish to make peace with Julian’s people, rather than destroying them; some of those whom he has already converted to his cause speak of him as a messiah-figure amongst vampires – the 'pale king'. Caught up in a battle that he cannot comprehend, Marsh’s pragmatism and knowledge of the river are tried to the utmost.

This is not a novel which concerns itself with blood and night alone; Martin uses the vampire metaphor to explore issues of power, sacrifice and degeneration; Marsh and York’s journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ owes more to Conrad than to Anne Rice. Images of stagnation and decline – a weed-jammed bend of the river cut off by changes in the Mississippi’s course, a filthy bar in New Orleans – are contrasted with the gleaming mirrors and marble floors of the Fevre Dream, just as Marsh’s essential honesty and honour offset the treacherous, amoral Sour Billy, Julian’s human henchman.

Martin’s interpretation of the vampire myth is subtly conveyed, and more convincing – scientifically and emotionally – than many. While he doesn’t dwell on the act of vampirism, neither does he gloss over the everyday violence and danger of life on the river – exploding engines, bar brawls and the casual slaughter of slaves. As a historical novel, it has a convincing sense of place and time; as a horror novel, its sense of brooding menace and powerlessness is remarkably effective