Finding a decent novel in the haystack that is modern vampire literature can be a bit of a hassle so sometimes the safest option is to go for authors you are already familiar with. I had read about George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream in Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves and since I am a fan of Martin's work, this novel felt like a safe bet.
Fevre Dream tells the story of Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain who is dreaming to one day own the fastest and most beautiful boat on the Mississippi. When aristocrat Joshua York offers to build the boat of his dreams in exhange for a partnership with him, Marsh knows he should decline but the offer is just too good to be true. Soon the two men navigate the river together but Marsh can't help but notice that York has some strange habits: he won't come out of his cabin during the day and mysteriously disappears at night, he hoards bottles of a weird, dark liquid and won't stop reciting poetry. Against his better judgement, Marsh confronts York and thus ends up in a story far bigger and far more dangerous than he had ever anticipated.
Martin treats the reader to his usual slow yet steady narrating pace. He takes the time to create the dark and even feverish atmosphere of 'the South', similar to that of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. Through elaborate language and long descriptions, Martin gives the reader the means to settle into the story. Most of the first hundred pages consist of the reader getting to know the characters and sharing in Abner Marsh's thoughts and suspicions concerning his new partner. Although it is easy to get dragged along in judgement and believe that Marsh is a superficial and ignorant person, the reader needs to heed the twists and turns in the river; there is more to these characters than meets the eye.
Whereas the crude Abner Marsh is not the kind of person you usually meet in a vampire novel, Mysterious Stranger Joshua York clearly echoes some of the great classic vampires. York's aristocratic mannerisms and his love for poetry may just as easily have come across as cliché, but it all fits together so well that his personality is completely believable. The development of his dynamic relationship with Marsh is fascinating to read, as both characters are almost each other's opposites. Sadly, well-rounded characters are sparse and the only relatively important female character gets no backstory whatsoever. The other vampires and especially York's antagonist, Damon Julian, are disappointingly one-dimensional in their malice which makes them lose some of their credibility.
However, what is interesting about this utter demonisation of the antagonist is the underlying political narrative. Fevre Dream could be read purely as a vampire novel but completely ignoring the inherent social criticism is hard: the South of the 1800s is not only a popular setting for vampire novels. Martin does not shy away from the subject of slavery and his characters think critically about the concept. Once Marsh is aware of the existence of vampires and their (lack of) empathy for humans, a juxtaposition is easily made.
Every now and then, when the characters are not sunken in thought, having elaborate dinners or discussing politics, there is some room left for the story to unravel. The plot of Fevre Dream is not as elaborate as it could have been but it thickens steadily in just the right pace as backstories are revealed and the tension rises. Not a single scene is really action packed, but the run-up to the final confrontation keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, regardless of how (un)expected the ending is.
Overall, Fevre Dream is a very atmospherical spin on the vampire genre with interesting characters and well-paced dynamics. Through the use of clever details, twists and turns in both plot and characterisation, the reader gets dragged along, around every bend of the Mississippi. The underlying criticism of oppression and the unlikely relationships make Fevre Dream more than just another vampire story. George R.R. Martin's combination of innovation and fixed values makes for an interesting narrative that is not merely a thrilling story, but also a brilliant ode to vampire literature.