Good ol' clichés. In fiction they can be A) beaten like a dead horse, B) expanded upon to transcend origin, C) deconstructed for critical value, or D) given enough depth to stand on their own—legs tottering from the years of accumulated weight, but standing nonetheless. Another way of putting this, B, C, and/or D are needed to avoid A. George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream (1982) goes with tactic D, but it remains up to the reader whether its legs collapse.
The offer seeming too good to be true, at the outset of Fevre Dream Captain Abner Marsh approaches his midnight dinner with the mysterious Joshua York with strong reserve. Marsh’s fleet of steamboats having recently been destroyed in winter’s ice, he has little of value, and is wary of the massive sum he is offered to captain a steamboat, no questions to be asked. When Marsh learns the full incentive of the offer, however, he jumps on it—a dream truly come true. A time later, Marsh finds himself happily plying the waters of the Mississippi once again. But more questions remain. York confines himself to his stateroom during the day, has a bizarre obsession with unsolved murders along the river, and his companions are a little long in the tooth—literally. Little does Marsh know just how much stranger his life on the river is about to become.
One of the major tropes of genre, vampires in themselves are not cliché. But vampires in a tale of the American south, who burn in the sun, who die with stakes through the heart, who heal miraculously, who war amongst themselves, and who live eternally, are cliché, and in Fevre Dream, Martin does not avoid taking his story train through any of these heavily trafficked stations. In fact, it would appear he simply borrowed the vampires of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire series, begging the question: what are the details of tactic D?
With the vampires left to echo Anne Rice’s (and to be fair, Richard Matheson’s) contributions to genre, arguably the most interesting parts of Fevre Dream are the steamboats and portrayal of life on the Mississippi circa 1850. From the grandeur of the river queens to Mark Twain romanticism, boat races to supplies and passengers, it’s impossible for the reader to finish the novel without having images stuck in their head of steamboats puffing smoke, chugging through the foggy night. The vampires may be cliche, but the boats come alive.
Fevre Dream is structured nicely; the introduction of the main characters and steamboats, the build up, the reveal, the calm before the storm, and the storm itself fit the mainstream action/suspense bill nicely. But the execution of the story toward the climax loses some of the tight focus which characterizes the novel’s outset. The main villain and notion of bloodmaster in particular do not hold up well to close scrutiny, which reduces the impact of the conclusion. Another way of putting this is, the major showdown that builds up over the course of the story could/should have been more tense and exciting than it was had some details been better organized.