A decently gripping, if somewhat uneven, early George RR Martin work.
Armageddon Rag is, for a GRRM book, surprisingly earnest. It’s a work quite unlike the multilayered cynicism of A Sword of Ice and Fire. It wears its rock-n-roll heart on its sleeve: a celebration, but also a introspective look, into the 1960s zeitgeist, with its hippie communes and rock concerts and student protesters and the Vietnam War.
Armageddon Rag is broadly about writer and former journalist Sandy Blair, a former student activist turned bestselling pulp author, as he sets off on a cross-American journey to uncover the truth behind the murder of the former agent to a once-famous (and fictional) rock band, the Nazgul, that disbanded after their lead singer was shot dead on stage. On the way, he meets with his old college friends, once youthful idealists like him, but all on wildly differing paths, worn down by the harsh realities of the post-Nixon age.
But then things get weirder when he gets to the root of the mystery and finds a charismatic former revolutionary who wants to bring back the Nazgul, believing that doing so will restore the zeitgeist of the 1960s and precipitate the revolution that should have taken place.
Armageddon Rag is a narrative triptych – a sturdy if somewhat by-the-book mashup of detective novel and classic road trip narrative as Sandy scours America searching for leads and meeting old friends, a weird second section that dabbles in the paranormal when Sandy gets involved in the attempted resurrection of the Nazgul, and a somewhat disappointing denouement that tries to mesh the metaphorical with the actual to round off GRRM’s thematic point, but does so in a way that strains credulity.
The first part is an elegy for the lost passion and naivete of the Flower generation, the youthful idealists espousing free love, sticking it to the Man, powered by the beats of a hundred rock anthems. Blair goes on a half-investigation, half introspective journey around America: a sort of masculine Eat Pray Love if you will: checking on his old friends and seeing how life has treated them. While occasionally a little overwrought, this is where the book is at its most thoughtful.
Where the second and third parts get weird is when Martin explores the prospect of the resurrection of that spirit through the resurrection of its anthems. In doing so, Martin tries to explore the consequences of unchecked revolutionary fervor, of resorting to extremist measures to achieve ideological goals. This aspect of the book has not aged well: it reads somewhat simplistically when pitted against the canvas of more recent times.
And it is in the final, somewhat bizarre act, when Blair is given a choice to set that revolutionary fervor ablaze, or reject paying its unsavory cost to embrace a more uncertain future, that the narrative breaks down in service to Martin’s contrived conundrum. The narrative jolts abruptly to magic realism and the villain is reduced to someone who has to rely on contrived rules of magic to make their plot work out. As such, the outcome of the plot narrows down to a narrow binary moral choice that Blair must make. It’s almost video-gamey in its contrived nature.
While this is only the first non-ASOIAF work of Martin’s that I’ve read, I certainly hope that he’s gotten better at his endings. But Armageddon Rag should not be judged solely by its deflated denouement: it’s got that quality of passion about it. It is a book about a subject that the writer cares deeply about. And it is that quality that gives it that value as a window into a timespace that only someone like GRRM can really articulate.
I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 hot air balloons