I started to get a suspicion not long after I picked up George R R Martin’s Fevre Dream that I’d read something similar before. And it turns out that I was right – but, in my personal opinion, also very wrong.
Some reviews of Fevre Dream call it a direct ripoff of Anne Rice’s much-loved Vampire Chronicles. The passage that confirmed to me that that’s the link I was thinking of was a scene where characters tell a Mississippi riverman’s myth: a phantom steamer filled with the bloodsucking damned. I’ll quote a bit of it later. However I also think that that small section is the most perfect possible illustration of the difference between the two books.
Fevre Dream‘s protagonist, Abner Marsh, is an unsympathetic character – ugly, stubborn, fat, bad-tempered and possessed of a paddle steamer freight company whose ships have all been wrecked by a winter storm. What makes the reader warm to him is a kind of ornery goodness and the sheer relatability of his ultimate dream – captaining the steamer that will outrace the legendary Eclipse. It’s a positively boyish dream for this unprepossessing adult; sleek machines and speed and glory. (I do wonder where GRRM got the inspiration for his signature captain’s cap.) This is, you understand, the Mississipi of the 1850s, when wood-fired paddle steamers ruled the river and crowded the levee for a mile at New Orleans. It’s a lush, humid setting (which I might add made it perfect reading for lush and humid Cambridge summer days), and there’s a sense of grandeur and saudades about that lost piece of America which draws one in as much as the complexity of Abner Marsh himself.
Now I’ll make a confession here; I have neither read nor watched any Game of Thrones. I got maybe half a chapter into the first book when the pileup of incest, misfortune and the sense that it was only going to get worse from here on in made me put it down and send it back to the library unread. The same is true of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which had a bad combination of (a) slimy filth so evocatively described you could feel it on your skin, and (b) the same sort of arbitrary insanity as the Gormenghast books only with added petty sexual deviance. That one went back to the library as well; self care takes many forms and not reading things that make you feel like ripping your own skin off is just one of them. At some point I’ll read whichever one of China Mieville’s books it is that everyone says is so technically outstanding, because I want to see why they’re saying that and whether I can do that stuff too, but he’s not a writer whose work I find engaging.
But after reading Fevre Dream I almost feel I don’t need to read Song of Ice and Fire. It’s based on the same bleak vision of human nature and human morality; it has the same creeping sense of doom, although in this case the impending doom (and the creeping moral rot, often expressed through both human and material decay) is more clearly associated with the “enemies”, the vampires. Martin’s vampires are however very much not the straight-mythology vampires of Anne Rice. In Martin’s book crosses, garlic and all that malarkey are stuff and nonsense – vampires are a separate species, born rather than made, a predator which has lived in shadows since before humanity evolved. It almost feels like the way a sci-fi writer would treat supernatural species – give them a stable rational foundation to exist on, rather than embracing the magic and the mystery that rides along.
Don’t get me wrong; Martin’s book is no sci-fi moral fable. It’s a story in which flawed characters make the same mistakes again and again, where escape is through lucky chance or grim determination and where more is broken and lost than saved and gained. These characters never get the hero’s welcome; they only triumph when the glory days are long over and done. And they do it by changing their habits; by learning and growing as people.
You know, all that messy stuff nobody wants to read about.
This is the passage I was talking about above, the myth told by river pilot Karl Framm to an audience of steamboatmen – just one in a long evening of sailors’ yarning.
“There’s this steamboat named the Ozymandias, y’see…”
“Never heard of it,” somebody said.
Framm smiled thinly. “Y’better hope you never see it,” he said, “cause them what does is done for. She only runs by night, this boat. And she’s dark, all dark. Painted black as her stacks, every inch of her, except that inside she’s got a main cabin with a carpet the colour of blood, and silver mirrors everywhere that don’t reflect nothing. Them mirrors is always empty, even though she’s got lots of folks aboard her, pale-looking folks in fine clothes. They smile a lot. Only they don’t show in the mirrors.”
Someone shivered. They had all gone silent. “Why not?” asked an engineer Marsh knew slightly.
“Cause they’re dead,” Framm said. “Ever’ damn one of ’em, dead. Only they won’t lie down. They’re sinners, and they got to ride that boat forever, all up and down the river, never touching port, no sir.”
“Phantoms,” somebody said.
“Ha’nts,” added a woman, “like that Raccourci boat.”
“Hell no,” said Karl Framm. “You can pass right throughy a ha’nt, but not the Ozymandias. She’s real enough, and you’ll learn it quick and to your sorrow if you come on her at night. Them dead folks is hungry. They drink blood, y’know. Hot red blood. They hide in the dark and when they see the lights of another steamer, they set out after her, and if they catch ‘er they come swarming aboard, all those dead white faces, smiling, dressed so fine. And they sink the boat afterward, or burn her, and the next mornin’ there’s nothing to see but a couple of stacks stickin’ up out of the river, or maybe a wrecked boat full of corpses. Except for the sinners. The sinners go aboard that Ozymandias, and ride on her forever.”
You can pass right through a ha’nt; that’s the phrase I recognised from Anne Rice. Word for word, in fact. But the context of the river-tale in Anne Rice is very different; it’s reported second hand, a rumour started by the vampires to serve their purposes. In Martin’s book, we as the reader are sat among the human steamboatmen, facing uncertainty and threat with an unknown force behind it – and the tale of Hell’s steamboat is just that, only a tale. The titular steamer Fevre Dream is never used for that purpose despite being taken over by the vampires. In Rice’s series, the black steamer is entirely real, and its captain (Lestat, if memory serves) eventually wags a finger at Louis for starting tittle-tattle along the riverbanks that has made it harder for him to catch previously easy prey. Essentially, in Anne Rice’s series the steamboats make for an entertaining car chase sequence to spice up the plot, because the reader is travelling along with the vampires, enjoying their strength and eternal youth second hand. Rice casts her readers as a horde of Renfields, all hanging on Dracula’s every word. But then of course that fan service may be exactly what made the series so popular and so well known. Fevre Dream is not a well-known vampire book.
What it is is a book with some really interesting – and I would say uncommon in genre fiction – comments on human nature. Abner Marsh is unappealing but good, and eventually makes it his life’s work to fix the mess he created with his original big mistake. He sees his dream tarnish, fade and fall – there’s none of that lovely trad-fantasy wish-fulfilment here – but on the way to losing it he builds a bridge between his species and the vampires’, and saves one small pocket of the race he calls his own.
Some reviews read the ending of the book as full of hope, the suggestion that Marsh has changed the world for the vampire species and will be remembered as a hero for it; I didn’t experience it that way. Martin tells us of the peace and silence of the river beneath the graveyard where Marsh lies buried, but also that that very silence is a gravestone in itself – that it marks the passing of the bustling, crowded river of the steamboat age. Most vampire books are an escape into fantasy; this is a book about time and change and little wars. It’s the story of a brief time when humanity touches something eternal, of both the great and the ugly sides of that, and of how both human and eternity come away changed.
If you ask me it’s a sight more worth reading than one of the ancestral series of the glitterpire school.