Did you know George R.R. Martin wrote novels before A Game of Thrones? Yes, it’s true! And you can read them! On paper, even! The Armageddon Rag is a 1980s tale of a journalist-turned-novelist recapturing the zeitgeist of the 1970s music scene. Spurred by a mysterious, sacrificial killing of a music promoter, Sandy Blair discovers that there might be more to it. Someone has a plan to reunite the band Nazgûl—particularly troubling since its lead singer is dead.
Sandy leaves the adult world of responsibility behind and goes off on a cross-country road trip to track down the surviving members of the Nazgûl. Along the way, he visits several friends with whom he has lost touch—members of the revolutionary circles in which he moved when he was younger. The trappings of Sandy’s present fall by the wayside in favour of continuing to recapture his present. As he continues to investigate the killing of Jamie Lynch, Sandy discovers that there is a supernatural element to his news story. And it might just eat his soul.
The Armageddon Rag is a very different beast from A Song of Ice and Fire, but they do share one thing: both are ambivalently supernatural at first. It’s not clear, at the beginning of this book, whether there is a supernatural element to the crime or merely the appearance of one. GRRM teases us, dangling the possibility of magic but never quite confirming it. He fakes us out a few times—the seemingly-impossible re-emergence of Patrick Hobson is one example. It’s not until the second half of the book, as Sandy’s sanity, steeped in the atmosphere of the renewed Nazgûl, begins to unravel.
So for the majority of the book, this is a music murder mystery. Sandy is an unlikely detective (GRRM hangs a lampshade on this through Sandy’s own reflections). However, it’s fair to say that the story isn’t about the mystery as much as it is about the music, and the relationship between music, culture, and the revolution that Sandy held so dear in his younger days. To this end, Sandy’s various reunions with his old pals provide great insight into how he has changed in response to the decline of that revolutionary attitude. Each of his friends has reacted to that decline in different ways. Maggie has clung to her old lifestyle, attempting to remain carefree. Lark—restyled as L. Steven Elleyn—has embraced the suit-and-tie atmosphere of middle management. Bambi has stuck her head in the sand and joined a commune. And Sandy, of course, quickly discovers that he isn’t quite so adult and settled as his life as a writer and boyfriend might make him appear.
I’m actually rather surprised by how much I enjoyed The Armageddon Rag. So much of it takes place—or is influenced by the atmosphere of—those “lost decades” of history for me, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Too recent to have received much coverage in history classes; too distant to have the same connection to me as the 1990s and 2000s, those decades seem forever just out of reach. I can’t identify with Sandy the way an older reader might. So it’s a testament to GRRM’s skill that I still understood and sympathized with this journey of rediscovery, which ultimately culminates in Sandy abandoning his journalistic endeavour to do public relations for the Nazgûl.
The tone of the book begins to shift, with supernatural elements coming to the fore. Sandy begins to realize that the reunion of the Nazgûl, the “resurrection” of Patrick Hobson, their new concert at West Mesa, are all part of a larger plan. Trust someone like GRRM to come up with the idea that Judgement Day will take the form of a concert! Despite the apocalyptic angle, however, the climax of the book isn’t so much about the battle between good and evil as the battle between Sandy’s sense of self-determination and his commitment to the “cause”. His entire journey is an examination of whether he abandoned the “revolution” because he wasn’t committed enough. His crucial decision at the climax of the concert is the last word.
The Armageddon Rag has moments of brilliance. Its supernatural elements aren’t quite married with my own tastes in this genre, and for that reason I can’t give it five stars. But the mystery, story, and especially the characterization are all what one would expect from GRRM. It’s not enough to tide me over until the next Song of Ice and Fire book … but it helps.