The Armageddon Rag by George R. R. Martin
Well, this is it! I’ve now read every George R. R. Martin novel! I’ve discovered that, even before A Song of Ice & Fire, Martin was a hell of a sci-fi and horror writer. Hell, I wouldn’t be at all upset if he returned to it after A Song of Ice and Fire. After A Song of Ice and Fire George.
The Armageddon Rag is set during the early 1980s and follows Sandy Blair, a rock journalist turned novelist. Nostalgic for the long gone spirit of the 1960s, Sandy takes the opportunity offered by his former boss to investigate the ritualistic murder of Jamie Lynch, a rock promoter with many enemies in the industry. Sandy’s investigation steadily leads to stranger and stranger places, but all centred on Nazgul, one of Lynch’s bands which had broken up around a decade prior when the lead singer was shot on stage.
This novel is probably closest to horror, and in many ways reminded me strongly of Stephen King. There’s nostalgia for American music of the 1960s, a struggling novelist protagonist, the murder even taking place in Maine for god sakes; the King comparisons are pretty clear. It’s a good story, with the supernatural horror elements mostly lurking in the background, being genuinely unsettling for their measured use. Much of this novel is simple meditation on the spirit of the 1960s and the music that fuelled it. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are regularly invoked, and the central fictional band Nazgul seem to be a sort of American cross between Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. There’s a little bit too much whining about how poor modern music (i.e, the music of the 1980s) is to my liking, and at times things can get a bit ‘le wrong generation.’ I mean, I don’t necessarily disagree; give me The Rolling Stones and The Beatles over Journey and Bon Jovi any day, but it’s a sentiment I find fairly obnoxious. Martin just about gets away with it though by the sheer passion he conveys for this era, with his reaction seeming truly earnestly felt rather than cynically affected. Overall, it’s just a damn good story, and a fun mystery to boot.
It’s easy to forget just how good Martin’s writing is, but I was freshly reminded towards the end of the novel. Nazgul have an extensive fictional back catalogue, with one album, ‘Music to Wake the Dead’, described in quite a lot of detail. The energy of their performances and personality of the members, as well as the lyrics to the songs and description of the force of the music all combine to create an incredibly strong visceral sensation in the reader. I mean, I know Nazgul’s ‘Ragin’’ is a fictional song, but I can hear it, or at least a version created in my mind. There are loads of songs like this, and Martin captures the excitement and euphoria of a truly amazing live performance with perfection.
Sandy is a fairly bland author surrogate figure, but he gets the job done, and develops towards the end. The members of Nazgul are much more interesting, as are the villains as they reveal themselves. We also get to know Sandy’s old friends from the 1960s, and they’re a well-drawn and likeable bunch. I particularly enjoyed Sandy’s trickster turned professor friend Froggy, and finally understand the origin of a running figure on Martin’s ‘Not a Blog.’ Martin’s habit for setting up linguistic ear worms returns to the fore, with certain phrases repeating again and again as motifs. There’s nothing quite as memorable as ‘Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moonboy for all I know’, but we can definitely see how Martin’s style has developed.
The Armageddon Rag doesn’t quite top Fevre Dream and Tuf Voyaging as favourite non-Ice & Fire Martin works, but it’s still a damn good read and a lot of fun. If you’re a fan of Martin, or even a fan of horror or the music of the 1960s, you could do much worse than The Armageddon Rag.