Saturday, August 11, 2012

Quartet - Four Tales from the Crossroads - George R.R. Martin

I've been seriously distracted from my reading lately so to tide you all over I have dusted off and partially rewritten an older review. This one was originally written in March 2009. It needed less editing than most pieces I wrote back then but some changes have been made. Hope to be back with fresh material next week.

Published in 2001 Quartet - Four Tales from the Crossroads contains four pieces of fiction from the period between his 1983 novel The Armageddon Rag and the huge success of his A Song of Ice and Fire series in the late 1990s. In this period Martin was mostly occupied by writing screenplays for television shows such as Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast as well as editing the long-running Wild Cards series. With his attention mostly directed elsewhere, his output as a short fiction writer decreased. The year 1986 saw the collection Tuf Voyaging appear but after that new material was scarce. Martin still wrote a number of of very good stories in those years, some of which have been collected in the career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, which any fan of Martin's work should read. Three of the four works in this collection cannot be found in Dreamsongs, so as a big fan of Martin's writing I gave this book a go.

The first story in the collection is Black and White and Red All Over. It was to be Martin's fifth novel but after The Armageddon Rag turned into a commercial disaster it failed to sell and Martin abandoned the project in favour of Tuf and his projects in Hollywood. Black and White and Red All Over is a historical fiction set in 1890s New York. The idea for the story is based on a comment by superintendent Thomas Bryrnes, who once boasted that if saucy Jack (the Ripper) should try his nonsense in New York he'd be caught within 36 hours. With no chance of Jack actually showing up in New York, this was a safe boast. But what if Jack had taken up the challenge?

Martin obviously did quite a lot of research on this project, both on the setting as well as a number of historical incidents and people that are featured in the story. The fragment in Quartet, about a hundred pages long, reads as the beginning of a very ambitious novel. Frankly, I am astounded that it didn't sell. With A Song of Ice and Fire under his belt, I doubt Martin would have any problems selling it today of course, but even taking into account the state of his career back then, it looks too good to pass up on. It is an absolute waste that he didn't finish the story. As it is, I thought it well worth reading but it does stop, as Martin himself puts it, "virtually in mid-sentence". Just when he had me solidly hooked too. Black and White and Red All Over leaves the reader hanging, something that some readers will find very unsatisfying. Don't try it if you can't stand an unfinished story, given all the projects Martin is involved in, it is unlikely ever to be finished.

The second story in the collection is Skin Trade, a novella written for Night Visions 5. It won him the World Fantasy Award for best novella in 1989. Skin Trade is a bit unusual for Martin. It is an uncut horror story. Martin has written quite a few stories that could be considered horror but he usually mixes it with science fiction, or in the case of his novel Fevre Dream, with historical fiction. This is the only story that I know of, where he tackles a classic horror theme, the werewolf, in a contemporary setting. The story deals with a number of murders in town fallen on hard times. The first victim is a friend of the main character Willie. He calls in a favour with a private investigator to find out more about the case and soon becomes very much involved in the case. With Martin using a classic theme in this story it is not highly original. It is very well written though. Martin does a good job of building suspense, timing the clues he leaves the readers very well. Willie is also one of the great flawed heroes Martin likes the write about. Of the four stories in this collection this is probably the most satisfying read. There are persistent rumours that this novella will be turned into a movie. I think it is very suitable for that, if a movie ever does hit the cinemas I'll go see it.

During his time in Hollywood Martin wrote several teleplays that were never produced. Starport is one of them. The pilot for a new science fiction series which never made the production stage. The draft Martin included was too long fro a two hour pilot of course, but it does give us a good idea what the series might have looked like. From what I read I even might have liked the series, which is high praise since I rarely see anything on television these days that is worth my attention. The story follows the adventures of a police station that happens to be unfortunate enough to be located near a Starport, as the name suggests a place with aliens and humanity meet, and one of only three such places on the planet. The cops face all manner of strange creatures, odd habits, cultural differences and xenophobia in the line of duty. I like the idea but I must admit I don't like reading teleplays. I had the same experience reading the two Martin included in Dreamsongs. A teleplay sketches the bare outlines of the story, just a few words on the setting and the characters, letting the preconceptions of the reader fill in the blanks. The figures and scenes you see in this teleplay are often very stereotypical. No doubt those characters would be fleshed out in the series, but in this pilot they are not. It clearly shows the difference between writing a teleplay and a novel. I guess it also shows something of Martin's versatility as a writer. That is not enough to really make it an enjoyable read though.

The last part of the collection is dedicated to the fourth genre Martin's stories are usually placed in. Blood of the Dragon is a Fantasy novella set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. It was first published in the July 1996 issue of Asimov's and won a Hugo for best novella in 1997. It tells the story of Daenerys and Khal Drogo, a tale the readers of A Game of Thrones will be familiar with. As far as I can tell the Daenerys chapters in that novel are identical to the text in the novella. If you have read A Game of Thrones this novella will not add anything new. Daenerys' story is set apart from the rest of the events in that book so it does make a very good novella. I'm not sure if it is a good introduction to the series though. Danerys' story is set in a very different setting that the more recognizable pseudo medieval England of the Seven Kingdoms. That being said, her chapters in A Game of Thrones are among my favourites in the series. That Hugo was well deserved in my opinion.

So there you have it, Quartet - Four Tales from the Crossroads, four stories in four genres, Martin's writing in a nutshell. Does that make this book worth reading? I'd say only for the real fan. An unfinished novel, a piece of another, a teleplay... they are all worth reading but their still only bits and pieces of Martin's career. Unfinished projects, unrealized ambition and a taste of a far larger project, none of that makes for very satisfying reading. It does give the reader a better understanding of Martin's development as a writer and why he chose to follow the path he did. Martin's career is littered with ideas that did not lead to stories and projects that were eventually abandoned. It takes nerve to publish some of it anyway and in that sense enjoyed reading it. On the other hand, it leaves me wishing he had finished Black and White and Red All Over. Or that he will at some point. The chances of that happening seem remote at best. So think carefully before picking this up, Quartet will leave you hungry for something that hasn't been written yet, and what's worse, something that may never be written.

Book Details
Title: Quartet - Four Tales from the Crossroads
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: NESFA Press
Pages: 429
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-886778-35-3
First published: 2001

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