George R. R. Martin
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The Armageddon Rag

Pocket Books, PB, © 1983, 399 pp, ISBN #0-671-53253-7
Reviewed December 1997

Sandy Blair is a writer. He was in college in the 1960s and became socially active in that era, being present at the Chicago riots in 1968. In the early 1970s he co-founded Hedgehog, a music magazine, and wrote about rock music for several years, before finally being ousted by his partner, who turned the magazine into a more mainstream one. Sandy eventually moved into writing novels, and by the time of the book (circa 1982) he's living in an unsatisfying relationship and is stuck on page 37 of his fourth novel.

Then he gets a call from Jarod, Hedgehog's editor, saying that Jamie Lynch has been murdered. Lynch had been the manager for several late-60s/early-70s rock groups, most notably The Nazgul. Sandy agrees to investigate to write a piece on it for the magazine, and soon finds that things are stranger than they seem: Lynch was tied spreadeagle to his desk, atop a promotional poster for the Nazgul's final concert at West Mesa Arizona, and his heart was ripped out. The Nazgul's final album, Music To Wake The Dead, was playing on the turntable when the police arrived. And it turns out that the murder occurred on September 20 - the anniversary of West Mesa, when the band's vocalist, Patrick Henry Hobbins, was assassinated.

The Armageddon Rag is a book about the ideals of the '60s counterculture, and the rock music to which it all occurred. The book is peppered with excerpts from real rock songs of the era (Simon & Garfunkel; Dylan; The Who; Credence Clearwater Revival; The Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell, etc.), but it mostly focuses on the fictional Nazgul, and on Sandy Blair and his friends and associates of the era.

The book has two distinct segments: In the first part, Sandy drives around the country, visiting his old friends and interviewing the three surviving Nazgul. The Nazgul are interesting to fans of the music of the era: They're a peculiar mix of The Who, Led Zeppelin, and maybe a little Black Sabbath, playing hard-edged, confrontational rock music with intelligent, pointed lyrics, and excellent musicianship. As a bit Who fan myself, it was hard to read the book without seeing each of the members as analogs of that venerable British group.

The story slowly unfolds as Sandy explores the details of the West Mesa tragedy and what the band members have been doing since then. He also sees where his friends have gotten to, and the entire piece has a certain "What happened to us that we became this way?" feeling, extremely melancholy. Eventually Sandy meets Edan Morse, who appears to be instigating a Nazgul reunion and seems to have been behind Lynch's murder. HIs replacement for Hobbins is a young man who's been surgically altered to resemble the deceased singer.

Finally, Sandy returns home, and finds that his '80s life has fallen completely apart. The second part of the book involves detaching himself from his '80s life and becoming the promotional manager for the Nazgul's reunion tour. At this point, the book takes its turn into the fantastic as the replacement singer, Larry Richmond, starts behaving on stage eerily like the dead Hobbins. As the band's tour progresses to a climactic performance at West Mesa, Sandy sees that everything is being maneuvered to coalesce when the band performs the final cut from their final album, "The Armageddon/Resurrection Rag", and Sandy gets the unshakable feeling that there will be armageddon, but no resurrection afterwards.

The Armageddon Rag is thematically extremely powerful, although it has the slightly weak plotting of contemporary fantastic horror. But its exploration of its characters ideals, and the implications of what standing up for what you believe in really means (especially when you're not sure what you believe any longer) is subtle and complex. And Martin even maneuvers the whole thing to a satisfying ending.

Martin is an excellent short story writer, and perhaps an even better novelist. The Armageddon Rag is one of the two or three best books I've read this year. Highly recommended.

A Game of Thrones

Bantam Spectra, PB, © 1996, 833 pp, ISBN #0-553-57340-3
Reviewed June 2002

I'm not, in general, a fan of fantasy, especially high fantasy. So when George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thrones a few years back, I passed on it, despite having enjoyed Martin's science fiction work from the 1970s and early 80s. However, the rave reviews the series has received (this is the first of Martin's "A Song of Fire and Ice" series) - including from some friends of mine - persuaded me to give it a try. It's not a project for the short of patience; Game weighs in at over 800 pages in mass-market edition, and at present the series is projected to comprise six books.

Game is a sprawling novel with dozens of characters and settings, a complex backstory, and several narrative threads. Providing a concise summary is difficult, but here's my shot at it:

15 years earlier, a trio of young lords successfully overthrew the corrupt King of the Seven Kingdoms, the last of the Targaryen kings. Of these rebels, Robert Baratheon became the new king, and married Cersei Lannister, of the House Lannister, a House whose allegiance to the new King was questionable, and the marriage was hoped to strengthen their ties to the new royal family. A second of the three, Jon Arryn, became the Hand of the King, exercising Robert's will in his name.

The third was Eddard (Ned) Stark, lord of Winterfell, which dominates the northern half of the continent. Ned returned to Winterfell and has maintained his land justly and honorably in the time since, and he and his wife have had three sons and two daughters. Ned also has a bastard son, Jon Snow, from an affair he had during the campaign, and despite his wife Catelyn's protests Jon has been raised almost as one of Ned's own sons.

Game begins with the discovery of a set of dire wolf pups, who become the constant companions of the Stark children. Then Robert comes to visit Ned and offer him the role of Hand of the King, as Jon Arryn has recently and mysteriously died. Ned is reluctant, especially since Robert has become fat and lazy in the last 15 years, but he is persuaded, particularly when it appears that the Lannisters may have had a hand in Arryn's death. Ned goes south with his daughters and some of his household, while Catelyn remains with their sons in Winterfell. Jon Snow is sent north to join the order of the Night's Watch who guard the Wall, a long and mighty wall of ice and stone which borders and guards the wild territories to the north, where ancient and terrible creatures are said to live.

Ned and Robert get along uneasily, and Ned and Cersei even more so. Things take a turn for the worse when Catelyn comes to suspect that Cersei's dwarfish brother Tyrion was responsible for an attempt on the life of their son, Bran, which left him crippled. A chance encounter leads to Catelyn capturing Tyrion and stealing him away to The Ayrie, the mountain fortress where Catelyn's sister - and the late Jon Arryn's widow - lives. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and schemes which ultimately results in open war among several houses, and tragedy for several of the participants.

Each chapter in the novel is told from the point of view of one of the characters. These characters are:

  1. Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King.
  2. Catelyn Tully Stark, Eddard's wife.
  3. Jon Snow, Eddard's bastard son, sent to join the Night's Watch at the Wall.
  4. Brandon Stark, Eddard's middle son, made a paraplegic when he fell from the top of an abandoned castle tower.
  5. Sansa Stark, Eddard's elder daughter, betrothed of Prince Joffrey, heir to the kingdom.
  6. Arya Stark, Eddard's younger daughter, a tomboy who has no interest in the niceties of court and who would prefer to become a swordswoman.
  7. Tyrion Lannister, dwarfish brother to Cersei and Jaime (the latter of whom slew the former king). Not a fighter, but a thinker with a sharp wit and quick tongue.
  8. Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of the last Targaryen king. She and her brother have been exiled to another continent where she marries a savage lord in the hopes of persuading him to give them an army with which to retake their kingdom.
Each character has their own arc, although not all of them illuminate that character. Sansa and Bran, for instance, mainly lend color to Ned's story, and Catelyn helps drive the stories of Ned, Tyrion, and her eldest son Robb.

The book belongs mainly to Tyrion and Jon. It's no coincidence that these are the two outcasts of the book, both by accident of birth: Jon is a bastard who's accepted by his father and brothers, and his sister Arya, but not by Catelyn, and not by the world at large. Tyrion is rejected due to his deformities of birth, but he's intelligent (if not entirely level-headed at times) and witty and ends up in the middle of much of the main story. More than once I wished that a chapter I was reading would end so I could read more about Jon or Tyrion. Only Arya really approached the two of them for interest, and she's an outcast too, since she rejects the social customs she's expected to adhere to. Her story is clearly only beginning in this volume.

Any lengthy novel like this begs the question: Is it worth all the verbiage? Could it have been shortened? Well, Game doesn't cry out for editing like Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars does, though the lengthy reminiscences about the characters' back stories do get tedious from time to time. On the whole, though, the book moves right along and reads fairly quickly. Its sheer length is daunting, but it doesn't drag.

But it's clear that this book is only the start of the story. For all that the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheons and others scheme and fight and talk, their conflicts are only the introduction. Daenerys' story is its own odyssey, ending in a sudden revelation which is sure to have a dramatic (perhaps disastrous) impact on the other principals in a later book. And there's something going on beyond the wall, something of which Jon and his wolf get only a taste, and as the years-long winter begins to fall across the land it seems that this threat, too, could eclipse the game that the humans are playing.

Martin is a fine writer, and Game is a fine novel of its own accord, but if you're going to tackle it, you're going to need to be willing to continue on to the rest of the series, because things are only beginning here.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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