So what's it about? Basically, you have vampires, a steamboat named the Fevre Dream, an ornery old cuss of a captain named Abner Marsh, and their adventures along the Mississippi River during the late 1800's.
In vampire stories, you always have to wonder why people don't immediately pick up on who the vampires are. They are always described as lean, graceful, pale, with arresting eyes and a tendency to avoid doing things in the daytime. In the book, it is so obvious who the vampires are that it annoys me when the humans don't realize it. At least George R. R. Martin didn't try to hide what they were from the reader like some sort of mystery novel. They are obvious, but at least the author isn't attempting to be subtle and just failing.
Abner Marsh is a very interesting main character. He's a loud, big man with a gruff personality, and his charisma carries this story. He has his share of hard luck, but he's not stupid, and he winds up having a realistic share of both good and bad fortune. One of my favorite aspects of Martin's writing is that he really doesn't favor anyone. He'll get you to love some characters and hate others, but how you feel about them really doesn't effect how life treats them. In his novels, bad seems to happen in healthy doses for everyone, good and evil and in-between. Another great thing is that there are rarely people that are good or evil at all, they all have vices and face difficult situations that test them beyond their capabilities. And he's good at making characters suffer, oh yes, he is!
I think Martin also plays with foreshadowing excellently. You just know throughout the novel that at some point the Fevre Dream is going to race this other famously fast steamboat. It's the captain's dream, and alluded to often. But then, I was so pleasantly surprised when this obvious event never even comes close to taking place. Like, gotcha! Bet you thought all that foreshadowing was for some purpose, like movies do. Instead, all you have is unfulfilled desire, or wasted potential, both provocative feelings that serve instead to draw the reader into the emotions of the novel. Good stuff.
On the other hand, I felt like the vampires were a bit two-dimensional, and that both they and Abner Marsh occasionally acted in a manner inconsistent with themselves, or the reality of the world they are in. What I mean by this is not that they seem unrealistic by our world's standards - of course they are in this type of novel - but that they don't seem to fit in with the reality of their own background, and that dissatisfies me. I understood why: events had to transpire the way they did or else the plot couldn't have happened like it did. But in two instances I found that characters seemed to be acting in an unrealistic manner. First was when Marsh accepts York's mysterious proposal at the beginning of the novel. Marsh doesn't seem like the type to make rash decisions blindly, yet he does here, and even goes so far as to agree that he will not question any strange things York does. I'm sure that he would really have said no, greed or not, but instead he does so that the plot can happen. The second instance is when York tells Marsh his story, and asks to not be interrupted because blah blah blah, and then an entire chapter is York's story (and a pretty unlikely one it is, for a vampire - I can't recall whether later or not some of it was proven false; York did lie to Marsh a good bit). There's really no way Marsh would have just sat there and listened - he would have done something, or said something, or had some reaction. But instead, it's all related and then he coolly seems like "Hmm. I'll have to think about everything for a while." It had an ethereal quality to it, which drew me out of the story for a while. Awkward.
Still, it's an interesting mix of elements. Wakes up the mind a bit juxtaposing vampires and a riverboat, on a mysterious mission. There is plenty of gritty action, and there are tough characters with the right amount of humanity to seem realistic (most of the time). Martin understands life on the river to a degree where you can tell he must have either researched it or done it for a while. I felt like even if I had hated the story there would have been enough factual information to make the book good as a non-fiction glimpse into life on the Mississippi in the 1860's & 1870's. It's not overdone, but the world is well developed (well, it's ours, in a way, so it should be, but I learned from it - an added bonus)
One last thing, the way I imagine Abner is exactly what George R. R. Martin looks like. A big man with a full beard, I wonder if George was putting himself into the novel a little bit. Seriously, take a look at the author's webpage and see my idea of what Abner Marsh looks like. Well, maybe take off the glasses. But I wonder...
By: George R.R. Martin
Amazon Price: $16.00