I became acquainted with Fevre Dream due to a very unusual story. The song "George R.R. Martin is not your [Expletive]", a letter by Neil Gaiman that was put to music by John Anealio. It's a message that fans should stop harassing the author into completing the series. One of the lyrics is recommending the reader try Fevre Dream, a one-shot vampire novel by George R.R. Martin completed in 1982. Being the addict of all things undead that I am, I couldn't help but pick it up. So, what did I think?
It's an amazing novel and one that I almost gave 5 out of 5. I ended up giving it a slightly lower score due to the fact that I was off-put by the period appropriate hate speech for the Antebellum South, lack of focus on black characters, and a rather abrupt ending that I felt deserved a better denouement. I actually feel a little guilty about the former but it is something that I know some readers will find troublesome. Raise the score to 5 out of 5 if you don't think it would bother you.
The premise is a peculiar combination of steamboats and vampires ("Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain" as Martin himself called it). Abner Marsh is a middle-aged steamboat captain in 1857 who has recently lost most of his shipping company when he's contacted by a mysterious European investor, Joshua York, who promises to give him all the money he needs to build the world's most luxurious steamboat in exchange for following some seemingly arbitrary rules. It's questionable whether Joshua is a vampire or vampire hunter during the first half of the book and the revelation there is quite interesting.
Opposing Joshua York's activities is Damon Julian, the Satanically named owner of a plantation who is leader of a twenty-vampire strong coven of the undead. Damon is more Bram Stoker's Dracula than most as while he's rich, he's allowed his plantation to crumble to ruins and fed on most of his slaves to the point that he has exhausted their numbers. He cares about little other than feeding and is only able to keep his lifestyle running due to the efforts of his human servant, Sour Billy Tipton, who is a vile racist Overseer hoping to become immortal.
Much of the book's first half is focused on Martin's painstaking research into life on steamer ships as well as the sheer luxurious opulence of the Fevre Dream. It is not only the most luxurious river boat ever built but also the fastest and Abner develops an idolatrous love of the thing. So much so that when vampirism starts becoming an issue he has to deal with both on and off his boat, he barely notices at first since all he wants is to be the captain of the vessel. Bloodsucking horrors be damned. In that respect, he's not that different from Sour Billy.
Martin creates his own rules for his vampires and as a longtime fan of Vampire: The Masquerade, I noticed they included many things that would be incorporated into Mark Rein Hagen's classic tabletop creation (via homage or parallel development). These include vampires believing themselves to the descendants of Cain, a horrifying "Beast" that dominates their actions, and the red thirst that turns even normal people into blood starved fiends. There are "nice" vampires but I rather appreciate that Martin makes it clear even they have body counts in the double if not triple digits.
The second half of the book is a good deal less engaging than the first half due to the fact the focus is less on the Fevre Dream and life on a steamer. Much of the book's appeal is soaking up the atmosphere and Martin has always been best at anticipation versus delivery, IMHO. It doesn't help that a decent number of the events are only recounted to Abner Marsh when they would have been better experienced. However, Martin is determined to keep the perspective of the book divided between Sour Billy and Abner Marsh with nothing from the viewpoint of the undead. Eventually, the book abruptly ends and we're left with more questions than answers.
Despite this, I believe that Fevre Dream is one of the classics of vampire literature. I also think that its nice to have a Martin book that is completely finished in its storytelling. This is a complete story so you don't have to worry about ever getting the ending. Honestly, I think this would make a spectacular HBO series and I wonder why they haven't done it. True Blood by the author of Game of Thrones!