Publisher: Gollancz (Orion)
Pages: 390 (Paperback)
Abner Marsh has had his dearest wish come true – he has built the Fevre Dream, the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi. Abner hopes to race the boat some day, but his partner is making it hard for him to realise his ambition. Joshua York put up the money for the Fevre Dream, but now rumours have started about the company he keeps, his odd eating habits and strange hours. As the Dream sails the great river, it leaves in its wake one too many dark tales, until Abner is forced to face down the man who helped his dreams become reality.
I seem to be going on a bit of a supernatural binge recently; first Dracula, now this, and next it’ll probably be that werewolf book that’s been gathering dust on my shelves. If this isn’t your thing, sorry, I’ll be back to reviewing other genres again soon, I just need something easy but fun while I get through the last of my exams. And onto the book… I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but what I got was a modern (if we can call something written in the 1980s and set in the 1850s modern) vampire novel that didn’t make me pull a face in disgust, roll my eyes, click my tongue, or hurl the book across the room. For that alone it should get at least four stars. Extra marks for being a damn good yarn and just the sort of book I was in the mood for. It’s not a perfect book but it left me with a happy ‘just what I needed right now’ afterglow.
The vampires are no Draculas – like almost all writers, Martin gives his own spin on the realities and fictions of vampire lore – but they are wonderfully dark, seductive, and chilling – with the emphasis where it should be; ‘dark’ and ‘chilling’. Simultaneously both more complex and far more simplistic than Dracula, these are the sort of vampires to run away from really really fast. But they’re not all the same either, there are distinct personalities among them that make them relatable, in their own way – no ‘all vampires are soulless and identical’ stereotyping to make it easier for humans to guiltlessly eliminate them. Although I wasn’t too keen on some of the changes Martin made to vampire lore – the physical differences between human and vampire anatomy for one – I did approve of the handling of the vampires personalities. Even the idea of whether a vampire could go ‘vegetarian’ if they wanted was floated in a way that didn’t make me rage too hard (which is an impressive feat) and some good mileage was gotten from the ‘are we really any different from humans who eat meat’ line. You can see the inspiration from Stoker there, of course – Dracula has his ‘brides’ (who are quite frankly pretty ineffective), the bad guy here has a whole mixed gender entourage, Dracula has Renfield, the vampires here have Sour Billy and Abner Marsh to do their bidding and assist their aims during the daylight hours. The details and mythology are changed but the ideas remain – and I thought the idea of having the vampires as pack creatures with an ‘alpha-vampire’ was a lovely, and very sinister development. People who can calmly command others to do horrific things are almost always more scary than those that do horrific things on their own (in fiction at least)
What really suckered me in though, as well as the refreshingly dark vampires, was the setting. New Orleans is one of the few places in the USA I really really want to visit and somehow it just seems the right place to dump vampires, and the slave-trading 1850s the perfect time period for it. It’s not just the vampires; the whole society of the place is rotten and festering and violent and ugly, hiding beneath a thin outward veneer of beauty. And the Fevre Dream herself is the same – beautiful and grand and hubristically opulent, it’s almost asking for the trouble it gets. As her journey downriver just gets worse and worse and the boat travels deeper and deeper into slave trading county towards New Orleans, the tension and foreboding atmosphere is almost palpable. And there’s a certain simple genius in the idea too – vampires on steamboats, travelling up and down the country able to stop off and kill at any point along the river, all the while living in complete luxury…it just fits somehow.
The one thing I had misgivings on after reading the blurb, some of Martin’s stylistic tendencies, didn’t actually bother me in the slightest. Yes, Martin does list everything that ends up on a character’s plate, but here it works far better than it does in A Song of Ice and Fire because his main character is an overweight glutton. He’s also brilliant and brave and stubborn, but he loves his food and it makes perfect sense for it to be mentioned so much in the third-person limited narration. And the clothes descriptions…thankfully few and far between, or at least it felt that way, mainly reserved for first impressions and significant outfits.
The characterisation is well, what you’d expect from a George R.R. Martin book really – pretty solid for the main characters, a bit simplistic for some of the side ones. I loved that the hero was a fat warty old(ish) guy. There aren’t enough ugly protagonists and I really loved Abner Marsh not just for that but for being a straightforward, slightly slow but not unintelligent, normal bloke. Joshua York I was less enamoured with, but he was more interesting than your standard vampire even if he came off a little cliché at times. Few of the other vampires were really given enough pagetime, Julian was a monster, but a suave one, Valerie was flighty and romantic, others you ot a general impression of, but there were a number of names that I’m not sure ever did get paired with personalities or faces. I would really liked to have seen a bit more of Jean and Catherine in particular as they both seemed interesting characters in their own right, but I understand the limits of the narration style and the character relationships didn’t allow for that. A good enough job was done in establishing the vampires as not all being of the same temperament and opinions that I can’t complain too hard that not all of them got intricate backstories. Sour Billy, though…he’s written to be hated; a nasty racist, sadistic, little shit of the highest degree, but to be honest I spent a lot of the book feeling pretty ambivalent towards him and seeing him more for his role in the story rather than taking his character too much to heart. Probably because his brand of violence is true to the setting and time period, I reserved almost all of my disgust for the concept and history of slavery and the real life people who abused and still abuse others they view as below them, rather than for Billy, who is only a fictional character. When he does horrific things to the black slaves, and non-slaves, I didn’t feel the surge of hatred towards Billy that I should; just shock and outage for the more minor characters and all the people who really went through that experience.
Now I realise I haven’t said much about the plot other than what can already be inferred from the blurb; that’s because it was surprisingly unpredictable, taking a couple of turns I hadn’t expected, and I don’t want to spoil anything. This makes saying what I didn’t like so much a bit problematic. I’ll just say that the 5 stars up there reflects how much I enjoyed the book rather than how wonderfully well written, fully fleshed out and likely to become a classic it is. I had several mostly minor quibbles with Joshua’s backstory when we finally get it, but it was written before a lot of the newer vampire stuff that’s turned that storyline into such a cliché, so I’ll give Martin some leeway there. I’m not entirely sure everything always played out in the best way but it was enjoyable and that’s all I really asked of this book. The only scene I have to say that I genuinely disliked was when, to show off how lawless a place was, a random background character stripped an unconcious girl naked and started unbuttoning his trousers only for someone to intervene – by telling him to carry her upstairs and do his business there. It served the purpose of showing how unconcerned everyone there was very well but I didn’t like it, and the later back-reference of ‘it’s ok, she probably woke up and slit his throat’ just seemed to trivialise the rape/intended rape a bit too much for my liking. I know Martin was pulling the ‘nobody is innocent, and everyone here is a criminal’ card by turning the implied rape on its head but it was such an offhand comment it didn’t really work for me.
Apart from that one bum note, however, it was a really enjoyable read. Not something I would recommend to anyone who passionately dislikes vampires or genre fiction, but if you’re willing to give either of those a try and you like your vampires pretty dark, it’s worth giving this one a go. Sure, it’s not ‘great literature’, but it’s a damn fun way to spend a few hours.