Classics Reissued: Fevre Dream
by George R. R. Martin
Bantam paperback, 2012
Long before author George R. R. Martin commenced his gigantic, open-ended (and therefore by definition terminally self-indulgent) fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and was thus lost to the world of writing, he conceived and executed brilliantly actual books, narratives with well-plotted beginnings, middles, and ends (also short stories, some of the best in the industry, with highlights like “Sandkings” and “Nightflyers”). The process of translating the rampant fame of the “Song” books into attractive new reprints of those older works has been fitful and surprisingly slow, but it’s been aided by sheer economics: fans hungry for more Martin and tired of waiting for the next slab of his slow-cooking fantasy gumbo will buy anything with his name on the cover. It’s been a while since these books last saw print, so for many of Martin’s fantasy-zombies, novels like 1982’s taut, fantastic Fevre Dream represent entirely new Martin material.
This one’s a hoot, stylish and old-school melodramatic (it’s dedicated to Howard Waldrop, a stylish and old-school melodramatist who’s twice the writer Martin is, but who’s not yet embraced the Robert Jordan Books Without End formula). It’s set on the Mississippi of 1857 and introduces us to Abner Marsh, a gruff, veteran shipmaster whose small fleet of river-boats was ruined by a freak ice-storm the winter before. He’s largely ruined (although he “wants no man’s pity”) when he responds to an insanely generous cash offer from a pale, mysterious stranger named Joshua York, who’s dining on an extremely rare steak. Obviously Abner Marsh isn’t a connoisseur of stock horror gimmicks, or he’d know that only monsters like their steak swimming in blood; he sits down to hear York’s offer and is subsumed by the man’s inhuman eyes:
But mostly there was a force in those eyes, terrible force, a strength as relentless and merciless as the ice that had crushed Marsh’s dreams. Somewhere in that fog, Marsh could sense the ice moving, slow, so slow, and he could hear the awful splintering of his boats and all his hopes.
The two become unlikely friends – and business partners, as York commissions the grandest of all paddle-boats (christened the Fevre Dream) to ferry himself and his friends up and down the river as they see fit. Abner he hires as ship’s master, on condition that he not ask any indelicate questions.
Indelicate questions arise regardless, of course. Abner gradually learns what today’s reader will guess instantly: that York and his friends are vampires of the ‘good’ variety, the kind who dislike preying on humanity and seek to find blood-substitute smoothies to satisfy their cravings. His captain and passengers take Abner into their confidence (“there is no one else like you” York tells him, in an estimate readers will share), and he learns that they have a vision for the future of their kind – a vision that conflicts with the more standard kill-some-rule-the-rest ethos of the book’s bad guy, Damon Julian, and his delightfully loathsome Renfield, Sour Billy Tipton.
There are plenty of neat character-driven moments prior to the mid-book bloodletting. At one point the vampires try to share their appreciation of Byron with the gruff river-man. After hearing “Darkness,” he’s reluctantly moved:
Abner Marsh stood in the library for three or four minutes, feeling mighty odd; the poem had had a very unsettling effect on him. Maybe there was something to this poetry business after all, he thought. He resolved to look into the book at his leisure and figure it out for himself.
All this earthy tongue-in-cheek stuff pre-dates “Deadwood” by three decades, and the steamy bayou setting likewise pre-dates “True Blood.” It all belongs more firmly to the world of Anne Rice’s hypnotic original pair of sympathetic vampire novels, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, except that where Rice’s vampire-lore drags in her parish theology, Martin propounds a much more evolutionary angle – his vampires are a different species, not a different morality. This, too, may strike modern readers are familiar – it’s echoed in the “Twilight” novels, although Martin’s monsters don’t sparkle in sunlight (it’s possible Stephenie Meyer will live down that bit of arch silliness, but I doubt it).
All through Fevre Dream, there’s excellent character-building, baroquely violent set-pieces, and an undercurrent of twinkling humor – all elements which are also present in abundance in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” And here, the reader also gets effective pacing, a rousing conclusion, and a governing humility about just how long a writer can require his readers’ attention without seeming like a fatuous content-provider stuck on ‘repeat.’
Windhaven, which he co-wrote with Lisa Tuttle an equally long time ago, is also getting a nifty new reprint. To get a taste of a very different George R. R. Martin, readers should snap up both books.