The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin
Review by Alice Wybrew
Onetime underground journalist Sandy Blair has travelled far from his radical roots in the ’60s – until the bizarre and brutal murder of a millionaire rock promoter draws him back. As Sandy sets out to investigate the crime, he finds himself on a magical mystery tour of the pent-up passions of his generation. For a new messiah has resurrected the once legendary rock band Nazgûl – but with an apocalyptic new beat that is a requiem of demonism, mind control, and death only Sandy may be able to change in time…
Largely thanks to HBO and their ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series, American author George R. R. Martin is now a household name in the entertainment world. Along with a dramatic boost in popularity, his mainstreaming has led to a number of his older works (pre-A Song of Ice and Fire) being republished for his new fan base. Among these titles is The Armageddon Rag.
Set in the 1980s when the flower children are children no longer, The Armageddon Rag sees disillusioned writer Sandy Blair embark on a road trip to investigate the murder of Jamie Lynch, a promoter of one of the biggest bands of the 1960s: Nazgûl. Between tracking down and interviewing the remaining band members (where each musician relates a dismal account of life since the group’s disbandment) he arranges rendezvous’ with a number of his old college friends. The first half of the book is therefore as much an investigation into the Nazgûl and the murder of their promoter as it is into Blair’s character, generating a fluid and engaging opening read.
However, the book takes a dramatic turn after Blair has completed his interviews, arrived home and stuck two fingers up to his editor. On returning to his realtor girlfriend and ‘comfortable’ modern life, things fall apart quickly, causing him to once again hit the road and join up with a shady group of people looking to bring the Nazgûl back from the dead – despite the lack of the lead singer Patrick Henry Hobbins (who was shot and killed on stage in 1971). It’s a jarring period that really fragments the story and causes the second half of the book to read as an independent novel. By introducing paranormal angles and giving the murder investigation a back seat, The Armageddon Rag becomes a bizarre character piece following Blair’s spiral into a world of visions and violence.
The broken structure of the book also lends it a clumsier feel than some of the author’s other older, more succinct work (such as Fevre Dream), and emphasises its obvious wistfulness for a decade gone by. Blair perhaps says it best himself: ‘All right, the novel’s a bit naïve. What can I say? It was a reflection of its time and social context. You had to be there’.
The ‘60s context and engulfing nostalgic feel may mean that the ‘Games of Thrones’ generation struggle to appreciate some of the messages here, but luckily that’s not all there is on offer. As always, the real strength of the novel lies in Martin’s eloquent and involving prose. The descriptions of the Nazgûl (who come complete with ‘Balrog’ the dog, a manager nicknamed Sauron and ‘Orcs’ for fans), its members and its songs are so detailed that it’s hard to believe they’re fictional. Concert history, albums and song lyrics are detailed in the minutest detail, convincingly immersing the reader in their world. Even for those born post-60s or who have no interest in hard rock, Martin’s descriptive prose and captivating story-telling style will make The Armageddon Rag a hard book to put down.
Not what you might expect and far from flawless, The Armageddon Rag still manages to provide another example of George RR Martin’s endless talent and imagination.
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