There’s a lot of talk these days about vampire fatigue, and whether or not vampires should hole up in their coffins for a few years until they figure out how to be scary or interesting again.
George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the state of vampires in literature, and since the book was written in 1982, that’s really only fair. It is, however, solid proof that vampire stories can be laced with horror and rollicking adventure, and for those of us who like them that way, it’s a hell of a good time.
Mississippi River, 1850s. Abner Marsh is a down-on-his-luck riverboat captain until a mysterious man named Joshua York makes him an offer he can’t refuse: buying and building a new steamboat to Marsh’s specifications, and going down the river with him as co-captain.
Of course, there are a few conditions. York only comes out at night, and makes inconvenient stops as they travel toward New Orleans. Pretty soon, Abner starts to wonder what York is.
Abner Marsh is the kind of hero we don’t seem to see much of anymore. He’s big, ugly, strong, gruff, loyal, and smart enough to realize he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. His personality, his determination, and his desire to do the right thing all ring true, and he’s very easy for us to love and follow.
The setting is the other key: the story tales place primarily in the 1850s on the Mississippi River. Slavery is still legal – Lincoln hasn’t yet been elected, and the Civil War hasn’t happened. Zelazny’s comment that it’s part Mark Twain and part Stephen King is apt, and it’s made me yearn for more dark stories set on riverboats.
Martin’s prose is solid – you can feel both the humidity and evil sweltering as Marsh and York progress further down the river, with bugs buzzing just out of swatting distance. This is a dark fantasy with horror leanings, but to be honest I don’t think it’s anywhere near as dark or disturbing as G.R.R.M.’s ASoIaF series. It’s not the scariest vampire book I’ve read by a long shot (Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard still holds that honor), but it is a fun one.
I’m of two minds on Ron Donachie’s narration. Donachie’s an accomplished actor, and played Ser Rodrik in G.R.R.M.’s Game of Throne TV show, so I can partially understand the decision to cast him. But…for a novel set on riverboats in the deep south of America, casting a Scotsman to narrate the whole thing seems an odd choice. Donachie’s character voices do sound American (though his pronunciations of words like “clerk,” advertisement,” etc. are definitely British), but the body of his narration does not contain an American accent. After several hours, I was able to just go with it – and in the end it was a very satisfying experience. Donachie’s storytelling is expert, his reading clear, his characters well-drawn, and most importantly: he gets Abner Marsh completely right. In the end, I would have preferred a thick southern drawl telling this tale, and I think this was a missed opportunity for a great match. However, I’ll also be very happy to hear more of Donachie’s narrations.
Fevre Dream is one for fans of Dracula, ’Salem’s Lot, and even bits of Interview with the Vampire. Those of us looking for a dark but fun vampire tale, with good characters in a unique and haunted setting are in for a good ride.