Tuesday, 19 October 2010

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

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"Abner Marsh has had his dearest wish come true - he has built the Fevre Dream, the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi. Abner hopes to race the boat some day, but his partner is making it hard for him to realise his ambition. Joshua York put up the money for the Fevre Dream, but now rumours have started about the company he keeps, his odd eating habits and strange hours. As the Dream sails the great river, it leaves in its wake one too many dark tales, until Abner is forced to face down the man who helped to make his dreams become reality."


Abner Marsh has lived his life on the river. "A big man, and not a patient one," he has worked his way up the chain of command, from hand to mate to captain. As of 1856, he was proprietor of the moderately successful Fevre River Packet Company, named after the river in his home town, and though grossly overweight and alone, Abner was as happy as such a man could hope to be. His dreams were of racing the fastest ship on the Mississippi, the glorious Eclipse, and beating her. But the year since has been hard. In July, the "Mary Clarke blew boiler and burned, up near to Dubuque, burned right to the water line with a hundred dead. And this winter - this was a terrible winter." An ice jam has destroyed four of the Company's steamboats; including the Elizabeth A., brand new at a cost of $200,000 and the apple of Abner's eye. It's been a run of bad luck rather than any fault of his command or management, but it's left the captain near to ruin. Near to ruin, and further than ever from the great liner Abner had hoped to challenge.

Enter Joshua York, an enigmatic benefactor who offers Abner a chance to turn things around. For part ownership of the Fevre River Packet Company and co-command of its most prestigious vessel, York is prepared to pay for the construction of a new ship - and the Fevre Dream, as the captain has a mind to call it, will be "the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi." All York asks is that neither Abner nor the crew challenge his behaviour, which, he explains, might seem "strange or arbitrary or capricious" at times. Curious conditions and no mistake, yet to Abner they seem a small price to pay for an opportunity long thought lost to outsteam the Eclipse.

A deal is struck. The Fevre Dream is built; Abner and York set a course for New Orleans and push off into the river, with high hopes and great expectations. Right about then, of course, everything goes wrong.

Fevre Dream is an early-80s vintage Masterwork, and it's a novel about a place and a time. A time "when the river swarmed and lived, when smoke and steam and whistles and fires were everywhere," a time George R. R. Martin evokes so masterfully you'd be forgiven for thinking he grew up on the banks of the muddy Mississippi a century and a half ago. Fevre Dream is also a novel about people; about hope, friendship, trust and betrayal. At the arterial pivot-point of this place and this time is the story of Abner and York, men whom could hardly be less alike, yet find themselves bound together, for good or ill, each with his own impossible dream to realise.

Fevre Dream is also a novel about vampires. A fact which, sadly, is as like in this day and age to throw its readers off as it is to draw them further in. York and the unusual company he keeps don't call themselves vampires, of course, and they're not your run-of-the-mill fang-bangers in any case: surround them with mirrors, as on the main deck of the steamship they commandeer, and you will see their reflections; they don't immediately turn to dust in sunlight (though the UV will eventually cost them a dear price); many of them find garlic to be a fine addition to a meal. Martin posits that they're a race entire in and of themselves, rather than one derived of our own. They feed from us simply because they believe themselves higher up the food chain than mere humans; as Damon Julian so memorably observes, we are as cattle to them.

Fevre Dream is a historical novel, by all accounts. Its period and setting positively sing, Martin brings each out so beautifully. We are with the hands as they venture out to sound the treacherous river's depths; we are in the pilot room as dawn breaks to see the silt-laden Mississippi stretch out, orange-brown, into the heat-hazed distance ahead. Some nights, a thick fog descends upon the river, reducing visibility so near to zero that the Fevre Dream must dock till it passes. And so we see New Orleans, gaudy yet magnificent, the den of sin that is Natchez Under-the-Hill; we hold over in Bayou Sara, St Louis and Memphis to take on freight. Fevre Dream is an exhilarating whistle-stop journey through a period of history alive with possibility, potent with the promise of technology, innovation, progression and revolution. It is a fascinating study of a time and a people and a way of life, all lost to us.

In short, Fevre Dream is a masterwork. It meets the very definition, in fact: it is an outstanding work or art, a spare and superlative piece of fiction amongst a horde of has-beens and hopefuls who can only aspire to its effectiveness. Its only failing a somewhat rudderless calm before the storm that heralds its chilling climax, George R. R. Martin's third novel, near enough thirty years old as of this writing, well and truly deserves its place in the canon of great fantasy. Plotted with such precision as to feel inevitable, parsed by the most spare and elegant prose, driven by a striking cast of flawed yet relatable individuals - some tragic, some comic, some outright horrific - and heady with such atmosphere you can just about smell the river stink and taste York's alcohol and laudanum blood substitute, Fevre Dream is testament to a place, a time, a people... and to the enduring power of fantastic literature.


Fevre Dream
by George R. R. Martin
August 2008, Gollancz

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1 comment:

  1. Fevre Dream is a great book (except for, as you pointed out, the pre climax lull). Which shows that you really need to read A Song of Ice and Fire.