REVIEW: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin needs no introduction to fans of grimdark. After all, the subgenre as we know it today may not have been invented by A Song of Ice and Fire, but it certainly owes a great debt to it for popularizing the literary movement. However, George R.R. Martin has other equally worthy works and perhaps the best of them, in my opinion at least, is Fevre Dream. It is a Southern Gothic vampire novel published in 1982 and is arguably a new modern classic. While not as influential as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which coincidentally share a location, it is certainly a fantastic book.

Fevre Dream by George RR MartinFevre Dream is a novel set in the pre-Civil War era of the American South, specifically on the various rivers plied by steamboats before railroads and later motor cars made them obsolete. I note this is already my jam since steamboat replicas remain a curiosity still plying the rivers outside my hometown. Even my jam is the fact is the fact this is a vampire novel, as mentioned above, and one of the most well-written ones I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying.

The premise is a financially insolvent steamboat captain, Abner Marsh, is approached by a wealthy businessman with a too-good-to-be-true offer to build the world’s most luxurious steamboat. The man, Joshua York, has only the conditions that it will occasionally divert from its preordained paths to carry out his personal business. Furthermore, they are to never bother him during the day or question his activities onboard. This being set before Dracula or Carmilla, Abner finds this mostly just a wealthy man’s eccentricity.

At the bottom of the South near New Orleans, a vampire named Damon Julian, is living in a ruin of a plantation. He’s murdered most of his slaves, sold off the better portion of the land, and now regularly buys sex slaves to feed his rapacious coven. He is a thoroughly despicable character, reminiscent of Roose Bolton and Tywin Lannister, but exceeded by his human servant’s depravity. Sour Billy Tipton is a former Overseer who has become Julian’s assistant, acquiring victims for his appetite and being a disgusting racist to boot.

Speaking of racism, a warning to readers that this contains a lot of racially charged language. that is period appropriate but can be troubling to readers looking for escapism. The book also does not provide anything in the way of black perspectives with the only African American characters being victims or very minor roles. This strikes me as a missed opportunity as there are several places where I feel like events being from their perspective would have worked better than sticking with either Abner or Sour Billy. We never even get the perspective of the vampire characters and they remain somewhat aloof and mysterious.

Martin has a spectacular gift for putting you in the worlds he creates and while the Antebellum South of Fevre Dream is a real place, he manages to immerse you in the peculiar culture of the time. You really do feel like you’re on a steamboat in the mid-19th century of America’s South and the first half of the book is deeply engaging. Unfortunately, it loses some punch around the midway point due to a change in focus that would be spoiling to reveal.

Martin’s vampires are very well-designed with a focus on making them human-like and scientific rather than supernatural. They have supernatural legends (descendants of Cain) but it is implied that they are simply a parallel race that evolved alongside humankind as predators. They are depicted as pure predators who are dominated by a red thirst that has no talent for creation themselves. Vampires are parasites that do not create art, culture, or architecture but merely steal from humans. Those who are annoyed by “good” vampires will be irritated by one’s attempt to redeem his species but the twists there were quite good, IMHO.

Martin’s vampires are very well-designed with a focus on making them human-like and scientific rather than supernatural. They have supernatural legends (descendants of Cain) but it is implied that they are simply a parallel race that evolved alongside humankind as predators. They are depicted as pure predators who are dominated by a red thirst that has no talent for creation themselves. Vampires are parasites that do not create art, culture, or architecture but merely steal from humans. Those who are annoyed by “good” vampires will be irritated by one’s attempt to redeem his species but the twists there were quite good, IMHO.

Perhaps the biggest appeal for grimdark fans is the fact that the characters aren’t purely good or evil. Joshua York has dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent deaths on his hands. Abner Marsh is vaguely against slavery but considers abolitionists to be the 19th century version of religious terrorists. An attitude that the vampires find hilarious since they claim similar rights to humans that whites expect of blacks. There’s also a very good argument that the Pale King is wrong to want to redeem vampires and that they probably should just all be destroyed. It’s just they’re up against absolute monsters in Julian and Sour Billy.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend Fevre Dream. If you aren’t completely burnt out on vampires and even if you are to an extent, it is a fantastic (fangtastic?) novel. The only complaints I have are the handling of African American characters and the denouement being a bit disappointing. Otherwise, it is a modern classic. It should be noted that I am also familiar with the comic book adaptation and think it did an excellent job visualizing the characters in the novel.

Read Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

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CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.