Steamboats, Vampires, and Slavery in the Antebellum South: a Review of George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream

Let the cattle create — life, beauty, what you will. And we shall take their creations, use them, destroy them if we choose. That is the way of it. We are the masters. Masters do not labor. Let them make the suits. We shall wear them. Let them build the steamboats. We shall ride upon them. Let them dream of life eternal. We shall live it, and drink of their lives, and savor the blood. We are the lords of this earth, and that is our heritage. Our destiny if you will . . . Exult in your nature . . . do not seek to change it. Those cattle who truly know us envy us. Any of them would be as we are, given the choice.

I am a sucker for novelty, and I can often be persuaded to pick up a book—any book—if you mash enough interesting words together. George R. R. Martin’s 1982 novel Fevre Dream struck the mad libs jackpot for me when it paired “steamboats” with “vampires”. Vampire fiction is one of those subgenres I have no strong feelings for, and as a result, I have read very few vampire-centric works. I have read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (and loved it), but I have not read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, nor any of Anne Rice’s books, which is an industry unto itself. I did read the first Twilight book, and it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to extrapolate my feelings towards it from the fact that I only read the one. Whenever these bloodsucking revenants appear in novels I read like China Miéville’s The Scar, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, or Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, I always enjoyed them being woven into the ecology of those worlds alongside a whole host of other supernatural things. What’s not to like about the idea of the existence of a creature that straddles the line between fear and attraction, life and death, and (from a genre standpoint) horror and fantasy?

Fevre Dream tells the story of Abner Marsh, a down-on-his-luck steamboat captain who was approached by a mysterious, cultured and wealthy stranger named Joshua York who wished to invest Captain Marsh’s steamboat company, and fund the building of a superlative brand new vessel that would put any ship on the Mississippi to shame. The only catch is that Marsh must agree to not pry into York’s private affairs (York openly said he would lie if pressed), and that York reserves veto power on where the steamboat goes, where she stops, and who she picks up on her runs.

While Fevre Dream did not ascend to the heights of the fantasy pantheon like Mr Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I could tell that he was already close to the peak of his ability in writing compelling, well-fleshed, larger-than-life characters such as those that populate his more popular work. Captain Abner Marsh did not come from conventional hero stock and Martin relished in reminding us of how ugly he is with his warty face and chunky physique. Marsh is also a straight-talking man capable of deep love and passion, and all that love and passion is funneled into anything steamboat related. His indefatigable romanticisation of famous steamboats, and his capacious memory for steamboat related statistics all proved to be quite infectious stuff. I even started feeling secondhand enthusiasm for steamboats because Marsh is so into them. And I don’t believe it would be very far off the mark to say that Marsh is suppose to be an author insert for Martin (who is a great lover of these old-timey boats himself and is rarely seen without his signature mariner’s cap).

Marsh cuts a strong contrast with his enigmatic benefactor, Joshua York: a tall, beautiful, ambiguously foreign gentleman with a pale complexion and hair so lightly blond it appeared almost white. The relationship between Marsh and York was given all the pages it needed to develop and mature, and it mirrored the relationship between Damon Julian, a creepy plantation nabob and slave-owner, and his sadistic manservant Sour Billy Tipton—an infinitely hateable wretch with a remarkable lack of redeeming features. Martin has a well-documented fascination with the monstrosity of regular standard-issue humans and their acts of cruelty, and Sour Billy is as despicable as any in A Song of Ice and Fire.

It wasn’t immediately apparent to me why Mr Martin decided to place his vampire fantasy deep in the antebellum South, but as I read deeper into Fevre Dream, I began to understand the how important the setting is to the thematic fabric of this book. There are strong parallels between vampires and Southern slave-owners in how they exploit and abuse people they consider to be biologically inferior to them. And there are comparisons that can be made between Uncle Toms and the Renfield archetype as well, as both are servile thralls tragically twisted into siding against their own race. It also makes a huge amount of sense how vampires could thrive in a place and era that commodified human beings, due in part to how easy it was to conceal disappearances and murders in an ocean of human rights abuse. The N-word was used copiously by Martin throughout the story which, while historically accurate, did not make the book any easier to read—which I suppose, was the point. Still, I wish Fevre Dream gave us even one single major character who is black. When black people were mentioned at all, they mostly existed narratively as victims, or as props for the woke white characters to be kind to. Consider this speech a white character made to a black employee of his:

You know I never held much with slavery, even if I never done much against it neither. I would of, but those damned abolitionists were such Bible-thumpers. Only I been thinkin’, and it seems to me maybe they was right after all. You can’t just go… usin’ another kind of people, like they wasn’t people at all. Know what I mean? Got to end, sooner or later. Better if it ends peaceful, but it’s got to end even if it has to be with fire and blood, you see? Maybe that’s what them abolitionists been sayin’ all along. You try to be reasonable, that’s only right, but if it don’t work, you got to be ready. Some things is just wrong. They got to be ended.

I agree with the sentiment, but the execution left much to be desired. Still, Fevre Dream was written almost 40 years ago so the clumsiness with which this topic was handled is not unexpected. His portrayal of women in this book fared no better. One female character in Fevre Dream pulled triple duty and single-handedly played a femme fatale, a damsel in distress, and finally, a refridgerator woman.

An oft-anticipated element of vampire fiction is the explanation authors give about how their vampires are different, and Martin was very coy in how he unveiled each detail about his version. I enjoyed how he played with our expectations of what we think vampires are, their abilities, and their weaknesses; and this fueled a great amount of speculation and suspense throughout the novel. The plot however, felt a little clunky to me. There were multiple scenes in which a character had to convince uninitiated individuals that vampires exist—and the listeners not only accepted the story but they were prepared to commit murder based on words alone.

Another Martin signature present in Fevre Dream is his coldblooded willingness to make his protagonists suffer and fail, and have them discover that rock bottom is not a nadir but an endless staircase that hits them repeatedly on their roll down. There was a point in the book that I mistook for the climax because it seemed so final, but I was only halfway through.

As all of us clock our ninth year of waiting for Ol’ George to deliver the The Winds of Winter, Fevre Dream proves to be a serviceable dose of methadone to temporarily slake our cravings. And as a standalone novel, it cannot burn us by leaving us hanging. It was written by an author who was far younger, and far less experienced than the Martin most of us know. There was some roughness around the edges that could use a bit of sanding—but you could definitely tell there was greatness underneath (kinda like Abner Marsh). Manage your expectations and give this a chance, and you’ll find yourself in the company of a solid B+ Southern Gothic vampire fiction.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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