George R. R. Martin is my favourite living author, and having met him a few times in conventions, he's also a really great guy. That Quartet is a frustrating read has nothing at all to do with Martin's truly great writing prowess, and everything to do with the problematic selection of material.
Frankly, there are two possible audiences for 'Quartet', and the book is a somewhat scysophrenic appeal for both.
For the die hard fans such as myself, the collection offers 'Black and White and Red All Over', the beginning of an unfinished novel, and STARPORT, an unproduced pilot for a television series.
For the newbies, the collection features The Skin Trade, Martin's fantasy award winning werewolf novella, and Blood of the Dragon, an exerpt from 'A Game of Thrones'.
Thus, no matter in which category you belong, the collection is only half for you.
'Black & White� begins with a classic Martin line 'On that dump April Morning Ned Cullen started his day with a glass of cheap champagne gone flat, a cup of cold black coffee, and a Murder'. Merely reading that line made chills run down my spine. This, I knew immediately, was going to be top notch Martin.
And it is. The story of three journalists trying to solve a Jack the Ripper style Murder in later Victorian New York City is so obviously among Martin's best works that one is left amazingly frustrated to know that there is no ending, that the story ends in the middle of a scene, with a note from Martin which says, effectively 'that all I've got, sorry'.
As great as 'Black & White' is, though, you can see why it was rejected. The complicated structure, and the detailed description of NYC (Martin has a knack for the Historical narrative, and it is a pity he doesn't do it more often. Even more than in his Fantasy and Science Fiction, Martin has a way of making the past come alive) carries through a hundred pages in which, plot-wise, little yet happens. Martin is setting the base for the larger scheme, but, like Fevre Dream and A Storm of Swords, the build up is slow and meticulous and careful, unlike A Game of Thrones, where the action begins immediately. This is hardly a bad thing for itself, and Black & White handles the exposition superbly, but as exposition, you cannot see where he's going yet.
The Next piece is 'The Skin Trade', the werewolf novella. Willie and Randi are among Martin's most memorable characters, and the tale of haunted hunters is among his best. The only weakness might be the slightly too complicated plot - after several readings, I'm still not one hundred percent sure I know exactly who did what and why.
But there is so much great writing there, such a powerful and nonchalant description of the paranormal, and Martin's wonderful way of making the exotic into common life, without losing any of the majestic beauty
So you admit you're a werewolf?"
"A Lycanthrope... . So Sue Me. It's a medical condition. I got allergies, I got asthma, I got a bad back, and I got lycanthropy, is it my fault?'
But than, a different character describes himself "Perhaps I'll come for you myself some night. You ought to see me... . My fur is white now, pale as snow, but the stature, the majesty, the power, those have not left me... We are the dire wolves, the nightmares who haunt your racial memories, the dark shapes circling endlessly beyond the light of your fires."
An unproduced Screenplay, STARPORT, is a pilot for a series that never happened. As such, it is a shame that Martin doesn't tell us something of what he had planned for the series. It is difficult to judge the story on its own. For example, is Kim, the Nazi girlfriend of undercover cop Aaron, a character that was supposed to return again? If not, she gets much too much screentime.
STARPORT follows a police force in near future Chicago, where an alien constructed base exists. The screenplay does a good job of introducing some memorable characters, but the plot suffers. Usually, Martin is a masterplotter, his tales brilliantly conceived and excecuted. Here, however, the plot is little more then a mechanism to get the characters to meet and interact. Particularly weak is the solution to the mystery, which is obvious and expected, and robs us of a character which could have been a very effective source of conflict for the series.
But STARPORT is a great piece of writing anyway, and would have made a very good introduction to what might have been the best SF TV show in recent memory.
The final selection is an excerpt from A Game of Thrones, telling the story of Dany, the princess lost in the wilderness, wed to a barbarian but fearsome warrier. It is, of course, a very fine piece of work, the Dany narrative being one of the best realised parts in Martin's brilliant novel, but it is the least valuable in the bunch, because I doubt many readers of this book have not read it before. and I have the feeling that the amazing climax to the story is more effective as the end of A Game of Thrones, than as a conclusion for a supposedly self standing novella.
Ultimately, I greatly enjoyed Quartet, both the fiction and Martin's wonderful introductions, but as the selection of pieces included is problematic, I can only recommand Quartet to die hard -got to have everything- fans such as myself. If you are a casual reader, one who only read few if any Martin stories, you'll be much better off picking A Game of Thrones, Fevre Dream, the anthology Sandkings, or Robert Silverberg's Legends, which contains Martin's The Hedge Knight among much other great fiction, as introduction to one of today's greatest writers.