I suspect that most fantasy readers who are familiar with the work of George R. R. Martin know him because of the superb A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. It is less well known that Martin was already an accomplished author with several books to his credit. One of his early novels, Fevre Dream, is a 1800's vampire story set in the steamboat days of the Mississippi River. Martin tells a very different story than one might expect from the "vampire fiction" genre. Captain Abner Marsh is a steamboat captain who has seen better days. He was once a great success but misfortune has destroyed his fleet and left him with one run down steamboat and a tarnished reputation. When Marsh accepts a meeting with a man named Joshua York, he has no idea that it will change his fortunes and the rest of his life. York wishes to become Marsh's partner in a business venture and is willing to front Captain Marsh a rather large sum of money with the caveat that Marsh must not ask questions of York's business and that any of York's commands must be obeyed without question no matter how odd they may seem. York's proposal is so much larger than the value of the Fevre River Packet Company that Marsh, being honest, tries to discourage York and express the reality of the worth of his company. In the end Marsh accepts on the condition that the money will go to building of his dream steamboat and his fate is sealed.
There is a second part of the story that will eventually become intertwined with that of Marsh and York. That story is of Damon Julian, a powerful and old vampire on a New Orleans plantation. Damon is the Bloodmaster of a cadre of vampires. He provides them with the human victims they desire and in turn they serve him. Damon seems content to be where he is, though his cadre and one human servant warn Damon that it is time to move to a new city because the danger of rumors and speculation is too strong and that will eventually bring the townspeople down upon them. Damon begins to send away some of his cadre and bring new vampires into his fold, and it is with this action that the opportunity for the stories to mix begins.
The common image of the vampire today is one of three possibilities: 1: The vampires from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the vamp walks by night and can act otherwise human until he or she puts on his or her vamp face and kills the victim. Certainly evil. 2: The classic Dracula image of the lone vamp. 3: Interview with the Vampire where there are long lived vampires who are evil and very involved in society and some form relationships. In a sense Fevre Dream is closer to the Anne Rice sense of the vampire, but not nearly so romanticized and there are aspects of the nature of vampires that are quite a bit different than we've come to expect. Many concepts of the vampire are shown here to be untrue or misunderstood: in particular, death by sunlight, garlic, stakes, crosses, and making new vampires. It is as if George Martin is re-inventing the concept of the vampire. Of course, Fevre Dream was never and will never be as popular as either Buffy or the pre-Christ Anne Rice and I do not see George Martin writing a series of vampire novels, so what we are left with is a great vampire story told in a completely different yet authentic way.
George Martin is a heck of a writer. He gets the period details of the slave holding south and life on a river but doesn't let the authentic feeling detail get in the way of telling the story. He gives the reader a strong sense of place and setting and sets some of the dialogue in period dress, but not in such a way that the flow of reading is interrupted. That Martin takes the reader to a different place and time and does not do what one might expect with the story is all the more reason that this early George Martin novel should not be missed.