The Armageddon Rag, by George R. R. Martin: a book review

ArmageddonRag

I knew that George R. R. Martin existed before he published A Game of Thrones and all of the sequels that followed.

He was a producer on the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, and then he was one of the writers on the 1987 television series Beauty and the Beast, which starred Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman as the titular characters. I was aware that he published fiction as well, although I hadn’t read any of it at that point. He was, and remains, an editor and anthologist on the Wild Card series of books. During another television revival, this time of The Outer Limits, one of Martin’s short stories, “The Sandkings,” was filmed as an episode starring Beau Bridges.

I knew that Martin existed, and had enjoyed some of the filmed versions of his work, but I didn’t read him until A Game of Thrones. After that, a lot more people knew he existed. I’ve read the first four books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, have the fifth volume on my bookshelf, and will read the last two entries if Martin can get them finished before one of us dies. In the interim, I purchased two of his earlier novels, Fevre Dream and The Armageddon Rag, the latter of which I’ve just finished reading.

Rag was a commercial flop when it was released in 1983, which led to Martin focusing on writing television scripts for many years afterward. In spite of this failure in the marketplace, the novel remains in print to this day (certainly buoyed by his other successes). And, I might add, it’s not a bad novel.

It’s not a great novel either. With it’s single third-person limited viewpoint, compared to the multiple third-person limited POVs found in A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel can feel claustrophobic at times. Sandy Blair, former hippie journalist and novelist, is only a marginally interesting character to me. He drifts through the story without a real focus for a good portion of the novel. He drinks, he gets high, he has sex. What he doesn’t do is write, which would have been much more boring in a horror/fantasy novel, but he’s supposed to be a writer.

The premise of The Armageddon Rag isn’t overly complicated. Blair becomes involved in the investigation of the brutal Manson-esque murder of rock promoter Jamie Lynch. Lynch had managed the legendary rock band, the Nazgûl, and Lynch was discovered, ritualistically killed, on top of one of the Nazgûl’s concert posters. The Nazgûl had broken up 10 years before Lynch’s murder, after their lead singer, Patrick Henry “Hobbit” Hobbins, was assassinated during a concert at West Mesa, New Mexico. During the investigation, Blair takes an Eddie and the Cruisers-style trip down memory lane, interviewing the surviving members of the Nazgûl, then taking the time to visit with his friends from his hippie days. Past-and-present collide and keep Blair in a near dreamlike state. Along the way, he discovers that a weirdo rich man named Edan Morse is planning to reunite the Nazgûl, with their deceased lead singer being replaced by someone altered through plastic surgery to look exactly like him. Only there are more sinister forces at work here, the product of dark magic, meant to culminate in another concert at West Mesa. The end result will be something evil, it seems. Perhaps even the beginning of an apocalyptic event.

A love of classic ’60s and ’70s music permeates the novel. Each chapter opens with an epigram consisting of song lyrics. The novel largely seems to be about the death of the counterculture and its music. And, as such, it is often an interesting time capsule. I have no doubt that Martin lived much of what he writes about in this novel.

The writing is good as well. Martin knows how to string words together, and he knows how to create a mood. If you like his writing now, you’ll like it here as well.

So, what’s wrong with the novel? There’s a couple of things. One minor complaint, for me, is that the Nazgûl never really feels like a real legendary rock band, even with the song list and lyrics provided by Martin. Since the band is central to the story, this becomes a problem, especially in the third act. The major complaint is that the story always seems unfocused and, ultimately, toothless, although I’m not going to spoil the ending of even a 35-year-old novel.

I will even go so far as to recommend this novel to you if you are a huge GRRM fan, or an OCD completist like I am. You’ll find plenty to enjoy here, even if the ultimate payoff isn’t as huge as you want it to be.

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