Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Fevre Dream, by George R.R. Martin


George R.R. Martin writes a lot, having set his hand to everything from television scripts, to short stories, to epic series. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, he's done it all. He's also been at it quite a long time.  Fevre Dream, the story of a magnificent steamboat, her captain, and the vampires struggling for control of the Mississippi region, is one of his earliest novels -- 30 years old now -- but already his talent for world building was dazzling.

Let's get something straight up front. I can already hear people saying "Vampires? I am so over vampires . . .," and tuning out. But consider: this novel was written ages before the good vampire/bad vampire dichotomy became rote, years before they became rock stars, and decades before they sparkled. Do yourself a favor and try to approach it unjaded, because . . .

 Fevre Dream is also fantastic historical fiction, as much about the vanished world of steamboats and their captains plying the eternal river as anything else. Martin's magical way with details transports the reader straight to the Mississippi waterfronts of the 1850s. There we meet the blustering Abner Marsh, owner of the Fevre River Packet Company. Abner has come on hard times; his once-prosperous fleet reduced from six boats to one by the vagaries of fire and weather. And so it is we find him entertaining a too-good-to-be-true offer of partnership from one Joshua York, a mysterious, and very rich, businessman. The offer includes not only the purchase of half the company, but the promise to build Marsh the most glorious steamboat the river has ever seen. The catch? York will of course be in charge, and his retinue aboard . . . and Abner is to ask no questions.

Dubious at first, Marsh is finally seduced by the idea of a steamboat so fast that it can beat the Eclipse, the current star of the Mississippi. And when she's done, it's love at first sight:

   The mists gave way for them, and there she stood, high and proud, dwarfing all the
   other boats around her. Her cabins and rails gleamed with fresh paint pale as snow,
   bright even in the gray shroud of fog. Way up on her texas roof, halfway to the stars,
   her pilot house seemed to glitter; a glass temple, 
its ornate cupola decorated all around
   with fancy woodwork as intricate as Irish lace. Her chimneys, twin pillars that stood
   just forward of the texas deck, rose up a hundred feet, black and straight and
   haughty. Their feathered tops bloomed like two dark metal flowers.

Shrugging off any ominous associations, he names her the Fevre Dream, and the river's finest new showboat sets off with a full load of passengers and cargo, headed first to St. Louis, and on to New Orleans. It's the happiest day of Abner Marsh's life.

It's not long, however, before Abner tires of his partner's secrets and strange behavior. York sleeps all day, requests the Fevre Dream make unscheduled stops and disappears, sometimes for days, delaying the increasingly irritated passengers and, more importantly, spoiling the reputation of his boat before she has had a chance to prove herself. Suspicious, Marsh takes things into his own hands, searching York's cabin while he is away. What he finds there will thrust him, and the Fevre Dream, into the middle of a decades-long feud between two vampires struggling for ideological control of their species.

It doesn't surprise me to find beautiful passages and sensuous detail in a book by Martin, or complicated relationships and complex reversals of fate. He's a magnificent writer. But it's clear in Fevre Dream that he's still honing certain talents. One of the weaker areas is characterization, which in some cases (looking at you, Abner) is more vivid than subtle. He is not yet the creator of the ridiculously lifelike Tyrion Lannister, and ASoIaF  lovers might feel the characters approaching caricature some of the time. (So, really, Fevre Dream only suffers in comparison to his later awesomeness.) It's also hard to read old-school vampire stories with a straight face in the wake of the pop-cultural deluge. But do try to get past it:  a 4-star novel from GRRM is probably better than whatever you're reading right now.

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