Abner Marsh was once a riverboat man, proprietor of the thriving Fevre River Packet Company until a boiler explosion and a boat-wrecking winter reduced his mighty fleet to a single, outdated boat. With his dreams smashed, York haunts the rooming houses of St Louis, hoping to avoid the other captains who might pity him.
Until, one night, he is summoned to the table of Joshua York, a rich, mysterious gentleman who offers to buy a half-stake in Marsh's nearly bankrupt company for an unbelievable sum, and to rebuild its glory by commissioning the Fevre Dream, the fastest, most beautiful ship ever seen on the Mississippi. York's only condition is that Marsh never question his orders, no matter how mysterious they may be.
York, of course, is a vampire — but not any vampire. A reformer and scientist, York is determined to end the ancient enmity between his people of the night and the "cattle" — humans — who have hunted them nearly to extinction. York has created an elixir that can substitute for human blood when the terrible thirst is on his people, and he is determined to travel the length of America's rivers, rooting out his people where they have gone to ground, and rescue them from their eternity of murder, hiding, and terrible thirst.
York's plan pits him against Damon Julian, an ancient, cruel vampire who has no urge to reform — who recoils in revulsion at the very thought. Between Julian and York are the humans they have enlisted to their causes: Abner Marsh, who stands as an equal partner; and slave overseer Sour Billy Tipton, one of literature's great Renfields, who believes Julian's promises to transform him someday.
Set in the antebellum south, Fevre Dream is a story about dehumanization and the cruelty that comes with it, with slavery never out of the frame and never far from the thematic center of the tale. But this isn't a mere parable: Martin was already a master storyteller in 1982, and while there's plenty of depth and resonance to this story, it's first and foremost a vampire tale: bloody, brooding, dark, and caught up with the question of modernity versus superstition, with violence worthy of any Red Wedding.
My most recent re-read was via the 2013 audio edition, which was voiced by Game of Thrones actor Ron Donachie (Rodrik Cassel), whose audio edition was part of a larger project to bring back all of Martin's backlist with readings by GoT cast-members (holy shit, I can't wait for the audio of The Armageddon Rag, which is tied with Lewis Shiner's Glimpses as the all-time greatest rock-n-roll horror novel). Donachie's mild Scottish accent effortlessly morphed into the cultured tones of the vampires, the rough burr of the riverboat men, and the voices of all the various characters from enslaved people to cruel overseers.
Fevre Dream [George RR Martin/Bantam]
(Banner image: Frances F. Palmer, Midnight Race On The Mississippi, Currier & Ives, New York, N.Y., 1860 & 1875)