Vampires on a steamboat. I don’t need to say anything else really. This is the first non-A Song of Ice and Fire GRRM book I’ve read (and it’s not even fantasy) so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but those books are so unbelievably good that I trusted Georgie boy to spin a good yarn here. My trust definitely wasn’t misplaced and I enjoyed this book, even if there were a few hiccups along the way.
Fevre Dream introduces us to Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain in antebellum Louisiana who finds himself in financial trouble after all but one of his riverboats is destroyed in a crash. Marsh is offered a way out when he’s contacted by Joshua York, an enigmatic (and very wealthy) benefactor who offers to shore up his Fevre River Packet Company by going into partnership and constructing a grand and opulent new flagship steamboat to rival even the fastest boats in the South. But it soon becomes clear York has secrets. Secrets he will not tolerate questions about. What does York really plan to do with his new venture, and why does he only come out at night…?
There are some issues I had with Fevre Dream I’ll get to shortly, but the story itself swept me up and carried me from beginning to end. It’s very readable and I never felt like I wanted to put it down. I don’t read as much horror as I do science fiction and fantasy so I’m not as steeped in its conventions, but I liked that this book had its fair share of blood and violence without ever descending into a gore-fest. There are some truly horrifying moments that instinctively made me want to look away but had me mesmerised and unable to stop reading. It’s probably one of the reasons I don’t read as much horror, because I worry I’m just gonna be subjected to 400 pages of guts and brains and blood, when what I really want from the genre is to feel disturbed and unnerved, not simply disgusted. GRRM does a good job of that in Fevre Dream while also writing a protagonist I really rooted for.
Abner Marsh is the backbone of this story. He’s about as unlikely a hero as you’re likely to meet; a cynical, grizzled old steamboat captain who’s seen his fair share of shit and finds himself captaining a steamboat full of vampires he’s indebted to. Given the only GRRM books I’d read before this were his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, I still expected Captain Marsh to be one of the morally dubious characters Martin wrote in those books but, while he’s still a complex and sort of reluctant hero, there’s no doubt Marsh is the ‘good guy’ in this story and I liked that. I feel like I knew him inside out, as a steamboat captain who lives and breathes the culture of the river and as a man who spent time in the seedier parts of New Orleans and the waystops up and down the Mississippi River.
I do think that came at the expense on some of the other characters however, particularly the women and black folks of the story. Valerie gets a particularly rough deal in that respect I think; she’s a vampire who had an interesting story to tell, but unfortunately we only get to see it through the lens of her love for and devotion to Joshua, when it could have been so much more. There aren’t any main perspectives of black people either, which for a book set in 1850s Louisiana that does talk about the experience of slavery, feels like an oversight. I mean look, the book was written in 1982 and I didn’t expect it to be great on that front, and it doesn’t mean the book isn’t enjoyable, but I think it’s still important to engage critically with the things we like and it would be remiss of me to ignore it writing from my 2021 vantage point.
This is a very good, very entertaining vampire story. It didn’t blow my mind and it hasn’t changed my life, but it’s still memorable within the vampire canon which, admittedly, I do have limited experience of. I do wonder what Anne Rice fans would make of this book and how much it riffs off of Interview with the Vampire, another historical vampire novel set in New Orleans in roughly the same time period and that I haven’t read. All told though, if you like historical fiction and vampires I think you’d enjoy this book and it’s a solid recommend.
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