Although set in the 1980s, this book is actually about the 1960s. I lived the sixties in the early seventies, but I recognized all the cultural buttons Martin pushes, the references obscure and famous, and the sense of loss of something profound that may have been nothing but an illusion in the first place. Martin wrote The Armageddon Rag back in the pre-Game of Thrones days, when he was writing wonderful, succinct, cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy stories. Two of my favorites from that era are the award-winning novelettes “Sandkings” and “Portraits of His Children.”
The Armageddon Rag is told from the viewpoint of Sandy Blair, a journalist of the rock scene turned novelist. He gets an assignment from the editor of a magazine he used to work for to investigate the murder of a promoter of a disbanded rock group called the Nazgul. The Nazgul were at the height of their fame until an unknown assassin shot the lead singer in the head during an outdoor concert in New Mexico. After checking out the murder site, Blair gets inklings of something sinister going on. He embarks on a journey across the United States to interview the remaining three members of the Nazgul. On the way, he visits his old cronies from the sixties, all of whom have adapted in various ways to the compromising of the ideals that they once held.
Blair’s journey eventually takes him to an anonymous sponsor who is going to great lengths to bring about a reunion and resurrection of the Nazgul. His tactics include not only murder, but also the summoning of dark nightmarish spirits.
But I don’t want to give away too much, because this novel is not only a nostalgic look back at the sixties, but also a tense, violent who-done-it. I don’t know whether Martin based the characters of Blair’s friends on people he personally knew back in the sixties, but the book reads like that might be a possibility. I couldn’t help thinking as I read this that Martin had a lot of fun writing it, that it brought up nostalgia for a unique era that flashed briefly and was forever extinguished except in the memories of those who lived through it. As I read it, I kept thinking, “Respect, George. I understand where this is coming from.” I’ve done it myself in novels such as The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen and Sunflower. It’s almost like resurrecting the soul of an era instead of a person. Doing it is the closest a writer can come to time traveling into the past.
This novel was well-reviewed when it first came out, and it was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. However, it bombed commercially. Martin became so discouraged by the book’s evident failure that he stopped writing fiction for years and focused on screenplays and teleplays. The book is still in print, though, and continues to impress readers, myself included. To be honest, I thought in a few parts here and there the pace slowed, but overall it’s a great dark fantasy, rock murder mystery, and nostalgic look back at the sixties.