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Quartet: Four Tales from the Crossroads
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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.
I'm sorry this review may appeal to only a very specific number of review readers, but it took me a lot of time to find out this information and wanted to inform others that may follow the same path I did.
While interesting, Martin's historical recreation of the Ripper's supposed exploits in New York, based in part on the mysterious, and historically accurate, death of a prostitute by the name of Old Shakespeare in emulation of Jack the Ripper is rather difficult to overcome, possibly because the reader knows that the novel, and the mystery, remain unfinished. Although entertaining, and well crafted, simply knowing that the mystery has no solution, like Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, makes intellectual investment in the narrative and the characters rather difficult. If the novel is ever completed, it will surely stand with the best of Ripper fiction, alongside such works as Alan Moore's From Hell (2000), as well as among the best of Martin's own work.
Martin's werewolf novella, "The Skin Trade", is the most engaging of the collection's work: It's a traditional page-turner horror novella, with the pacing of a well-plotted action film. The characters are interesting, the mystery well constructed, if not slightly transparent, and Martin handles lycanthropy with aplomb. Like the equally well-plotted "Blood of the Dragon", a novella that factors in to Martin's high fantasy opus, A Song of Fire and Ice, which won a Hugo for best novella in 1997, "The Skin Trade" is a wonderful read for both Martin fans and not. But having both been previously published, it is the script for "Starport" that makes this collection worth owning.
As Martin details in his introduction to the 168 page script, which comprises the most space of any of the selections in the collection, "Starport" was the proposed SF series to replace Alien Nation on Fox in the early 1990s. Explicitly a cop drama, much like Hill Street Blues, but more in line with Alan Moore's recent Top 10 comic book series, "Starport" concerns a near future Chicago police department that concerns themselves with the vast influx of alien races that have begun trade with Earth, with Chicago acting as one of the three "starports" on Earth to facilitate such. The cast is an ensemble of characters, most of which are human police officers and detectives, but accentuated with alien diplomats, merchants, and workers. The sheer inventiveness of the fictional world that Martin created in "Starport" is amazing, more so than his carefully constructed alter-Earth in the Wild Cards series, and while reading the script, it's hard not to mourn the loss of such an amazing entry into SF television. Engaging, funny, intelligent, the only aspect of "Starport" that is a little trying is the Klingon-esque Angels that play alien foils to the human cops with their arcane honor based culture. But "Satrport" is an amazing piece of work, and hopefully one day Fox will realize their loss. But until then, at least "Starport" is published, alongside some other outstanding work from Martin's most important phases of development.