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“Armageddon Rag” by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin is most associated with the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, and for a long time the only novel of his that remained out of print (it has recently been reissued) - “Armageddon Rag”, is a rare example of a novel by him that doesn't really belong in either genre (although arguably there are a few fantasy elements to the story).

The main character is Sandy Blair, a former music journalist and survivor of the rock scene of the late 1960’s. He is coaxed out of his comfortable but dull career as a novelist to investigate the murder of the manager of the former stadium-filling heavy rock band “The Nazgul”. The band had split a decade before (the novel is set in the early 1980s) after their leading singer had been assassinated by a sniper in the middle of their biggest concert. As Sandy travels round attempting to interview the surviving members of the band, he begins to suspect that someone may be attempt to force the band back together to do another tour. Despite their largely unsuccessful lives the surviving band members realise that they would be a poor shadow of their former selves, but are tempted by the prospect of reforming. As he travels the country Sandy also takes the opportunity to look up his old friends from the 1960s and see how life has been treating them.

In the later stages of the book some fantasy elements start to creep in (although there is nothing definitely magical happening) as Sandy starts to have premonitions that the Nazgul’s new tour will end in a bloodbath.

This is an entertaining novel with some flaws. When the Nazgul’s tour starts Martin does succeed in making the concert descriptions both convincing and compelling. At times it seems a pity that the Nazgul are merely fictional because a soundtrack CD would be a great accompaniment to the book. The characterisation is variable, Sandy is a likeable protagonist but the members of the Nazgul (other than bassist and songwriter Peter Faxon) lack depth and his old friends tend to be fairly irritating archetypes. Sandy’s quest to visit his old friends isn’t nearly as interesting as the main Nazgul plotline and some of the subplots (his visit to his insufferable catchphrase-quoting friend Froggy in particular) would have been better left out. One subplot, the tragic story of his old friend Slum whose life was ruined by his father’s hatred for him refusing to fight in Vietnam, is interesting but too short and peripheral to the main plot to really have much impact on the rest of the novel. The eventual antagonist in the novel is also one of Martin's less successful villains whose motivations for their actions feel a bit unconvincing.

In summary, this is an entertaining book overall, but not Martin’s best. It is however recommended for fans of classic rock music, and people who actually remember the 1960s (or were there but don't remember them) might get more out of it.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Windhaven” by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle


George R.R. Martin's third novel was “Windhaven”, a collaboration with Lisa Tuttle. It is a change of pace from his more suspenseful novels and lacks the epic scope associated with some of his better-known books; this is a comparatively prosaic tale of a young woman challenging authority. The planet of the title is a largely oceanic world, with only a few small islands for humans to survive on. After a wayward colony ship crashlands on the planet, the survivors build a low-technology community on the small islands. As the name suggests, the planet is extremely windy and the ocean is inhospitable – sailing between the islands is quite risky, and prone to frequent delays in bad weather. One of the main forms of communication on the planet is carried out by the Flyers. These people take advantage of the perpetual strong winds to fly between the islands, using wing-like gliders built from material scavenged from the crashed spacecraft. The Flyers need a great deal of skill and physical stamina, but the best of them are capable of flying for hundreds of miles.

Over the centuries since the crash the flyers have become an elite on the island – the wings being handed down from father to son. Maris, a young woman of common birth adopted by a Flyer, decides to challenge the society's traditions, in an attempt to earn her foster-father's wings instead of her brother Coll – especially in light of the fact that her foster-brother doesn't like flying and would rather be a minstrel. Of course, conservative elements in the society are opposed to this move, while more liberal people want those outside of the elite to have a chance of becoming a Flyer. The novel is split into three sections separated by a number of years telling the stories of various stages of Maris' confrontations with the hidebound authorities of her world.

This is a fairly un-ambitious story, reminiscent of Anne McAffrey’s “Pern” series, and disappointingly predictable considering the audacious and surprising plotting features in many of Martin's other stories. The characterisation is reasonable but none of the characters manage to be particularly memorable and although Windhaven's society is reasonably interesting it doesn't really get the same depth of world-building as some of Martin's other books. Despite this, it is still reasonably entertaining and quite well written, although it is probably the weakest of Martin's novels and suffers a bit from comparison to them.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Fevre Dream” by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin's second novel is “Fevre Dream”, a horror novel set in 19th Century America. The main character is Abner Marsh, a veteran captain of the huge steamboats that travelled the Mississippi and its tributaries. Down on his luck after a series of disasters, he seizes on a business opportunity offered by Joshua York, a mysterious European gentleman, who offers to build with Marsh the finest ship on the Mississippi. The ship is duly built, but as the voyage commences Marsh becomes increasingly puzzled by York's behaviour – although he seems quite friendly, he only appears at night and avoids sunlight, and he makes frequent unscheduled stops at locations where brutal murders have recently occurred.

“Fevre Dream” is an effective horror novel, superbly written with a suspenseful atmosphere. Martin presents an intriguing and original take on vampire mythology and builds an excellent story around it. The background detail is another notable feature, the author seems to have done plenty of research on the era and he manages to convey the majesty of the great steamboats. There's also a good amount of commentary on the social issues of the time, as a voyage into decadent New Orleans makes Marsh, despite his conservative instincts, increasingly conscious of the inhumanity of slavery.

Martin's novels are noted for their surprises and this no exception – there are a number of interesting plot twists and he is very good at eliciting sympathy for a character who could easily have been the villain of the story. The idea of a vampire trying to avoid preying on humans may admittedly have become a bit cliched in the three decades since this book was originally published (although it would probably have seemed original back then), but Joshua does convince as a fully realised character, imperfect but also capable of being heroic. A more conventional vampire also provides a more traditional, and chillingly effective, antagonist.

Abner Marsh is also a compelling character, he is an unlikely hero - a man with few friends, obsessed with his steamboat company almost to the extent of ignoring most human interaction he isn't initially particularly likeable but he does have some compelling character development as he is forced to confront both the inhumanity of the vampires who oppose Joshua and the inhumanity of his country's treatment of slaves.

Martin's world-building as he portrays the world of mid-19th Century America is as detailed and evocative as his world-building of his other Fantasy and Science Fiction works. It is something of an achievement that the way of life aboard the Mississippi steamboats manages to remain an interesting part of the novel despite the obvious distractions caused by the presence of vampires in the story.

The plot is consistently entertaining throughout the novel and it comes to a satisfying conclusion, with a surprisingly touching epilogue. Admittedly, the initial premise with Joshua funding Marsh to construct the steamboat of his dreams does seem slightly contrived and unlikely, but since this does lead to a very entertaining book this is only a minor flaw.

In summary, “Fevre Dream” is the best piece of Martin's early pre-"A Song of Ice and Fire" work. It is very well written and manages to present what at the time would have been a fresh approach to a frequently clichéd genre and it should probably be ranked amongst the best vampire novels and manages to be a fine work of historical fantasy at the same time.

Rating : 8.5 / 10


“Dying of the Light” by George R.R. Martin

Until “A Song Of Ice And Fire”, George R.R. Martin was best known for his science fiction short stories, many of which are set in the same universe. They are set several centuries in the future after humanity has dispersed among the stars. Any semblance of organisation between the colonies ended after a ruinous (but ultimately successful) two-front war against two alien races. The stories are set several centuries after the war, just as some interstellar trade is starting to resume and the connections between the star systems rebuilt.

One work set in that universe is Martin's first novel, “The Dying of the Light”, which is little-known compared to “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and was out-of-print until the success of that series increased the demand for Martin's earlier works.

It is set on Worlorn, a rogue planet that is drifting through space. For a period of several years this planet passed close enough to a large multiple star system that the conditions there became habitable. For those short years it became host to a great interstellar festival as neighbouring colonies established outposts of their culture on the planet. The book begins as Worlorn is drifting out of range of the star, and the climate is starting to collapse. Most of the population has left the planet, with only a few remaining in the shells of the former festival cities. The main character, Dirk T'Larien, comes to the planet on an infrequent supply ship in response to a message from his former love, Gwen Delvano. She is now married to an important nobleman from the world of High Kavaalan, a colony which fell into barbarism during the great two-front war and has only recently regained interstellar flight. Dirk, who is from a much more advanced world finds a great deal of culture shock as he finds himself caught in a conflict between Gwen's husband and his main rival among the Kavalar, a traditionalist hunter who believes anyone not from High Kavalaan is a ‘mockman’, a soulless mockery of a human. As the confrontation between the two groups of High Kavaalanites becomes violent, and he inadvertently offends one of the hunters, Dirk and Gwen are forced to go on the run, pursued across a dying planet.

Martin's characterisation has always been one of his strong points and this book is no exception. The characters are believable, even the Kavalar with their alien culture, as ever with Martin they are also believably flawed and even his protgaonist is not always likeable. Martin paints a convincing picture of a man still deeply in love with a woman who has now moved on from him, and still willing to risk his life to try to protect her from danger.

This isn't exactly a cheerful book, the main characters face a lot of hardship as it becomes clear just how out-of-his-depth Dirk is. Martin's well-written, often poetic, prose evokes a very gloomy, wistful atmosphere as he draws parallels between how both Worlorn and Dirk himself don't really have a very meaningful existence any more. The world might not always be described in a huge amount of detail, but it still leaves a very strong impression of a planet of faded glories on the verge of fading completely. There is also a fair amount of suspense as the hunters draw in on their quarry, seemingly able to find Dirk and Gwen wherever they go. The various cultures involved in the book are often intriguing and the abandoned cities left by the various civilisations are a good setting for the chase scenes. One notable thing about the book is its shockingly abrupt ending, as it builds up to a climax then ends just before a final event, its clear how that event should unfold but we never see the final event resolved. It’s a bold move on Martin's part and it works surprisingly well, although it must leave a few “A Song of Ice and Fire” fans worrying about the possibility of him doing the same thing at the end of that series.

In summary, this is an impressively well-written book for a debut novel, it might not be quite as brilliant as "A Song of Ice and Fire" but is still a compelling and memorable story.

Rating : 8 / 10


A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin


George R.R. Martin is an American author, who has been writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror novels and short stories since the 1970s, he is best known for his epic Fantasy series “A Song Of Ice And Fire”, begun in 1996 and currently unfinished.

“A Song Of Ice And Fire” is a work of impressive scope, even in its unfinished state. With over ten main characters and a supporting cast numbering in the hundreds (or possibly thousands), as well as a fully detailed and convincing (and relatively original) world, its size and complexity is noteworthy, even in the Epic Fantasy market where such qualities are traditional.

It is set in a world which is in a state roughly comparable to England around about the time of the War of the Roses, with the addition of a few fantastical elements such as a climate where Summers or Winters can last for years and a small amount of magic (although there's a lot less magic than in many Fantasy worlds, especially at the start of the series). Most of the series is set in the continent of Westeros, a land ruled by a single king, but which comprises the remnants of seven different nations united several centuries before. Most of the main characters come from four of the main noble families that dominate the continent – the Starks, Lannisters, Targarayens and Baratheons. The Targarayens had been in power for several centuries after conquering all the existing Seven Kingdoms with the help of the devastating effect of their King’s three dragons on enemy armies. A dozen years before the start of “A Game Of Thrones” they were deposed in a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon, who then had himself crowned King, with the Targarayen’s dragons all having died out decades ago they were forced into exile. Robert's closest friend was Eddard Stark, the lord of the icy northern half of the continent, and in the early stages of the series it is Eddard who appears to be the main character.

After King Robert's closest advisor dies in mysterious circumstances, Robert rides to Eddard's castle to ask him to replace the advisor, and incidentally take over much of the running of the Kingdom. Eddard, not interested in the additional power of the role he is offered is initially reluctant to leave his family and home, but eventually agrees, to a large extent because he wants to keep an eye on the King's in-laws, the Lannister family who betrayed the Targarayen Kings, and have a reputation for ruthlessness and greed. After his young son Bran is severely injured after apparently falling from the Castle Walls (with a bit of help from one of the Lannisters after accidentally witnessing something he shouldn't have seen) and is then the target of an assassination attempt, Eddard suspects the Lannisters are responsible for his son's injury but has no proof to accuse them since Bran can't remember how he came to fall. After a covert message from the King's dead adviser's widow suggests that the Lannisters may have been behind the adviser's death, Eddard decides he has no choice but to take up the offered position and get involved in the murky politics of court in an attempt to find out the truth.

When Eddard arrives in the capital with his family he finds that his notions of honour and duty make him poorly suited to deal with the labyrinthine politics of the Kingdom's capital. With few allies in the South he finds himself largely isolated. Eventually the whole situation breaks down into a bloody civil war in the second and third books, with several different forces claiming the throne. This is where most of the plot threads, and most of the characters are concentrated – but events elsewhere may have a big impact later on in the series.

Eddard is one of several “point of view” characters used in the series, each chapter is told from one character’s point of view. In the south as well as Eddard there are a number of other point of view characters. Eddard’s daughters Sansa and Arya both get their own set of chapters. Teenage Sansa is excited about going to court, she is naïve and has a fondness for romantic stories so she doesn’t realise the corruption of the nobility or the unsuitability of the petulant and cruel teenage Prince Joffrey, the King’s eldest son, who Sansa is determined to marry. Her younger sister Arya is more headstrong, more wordly and very reluctant to do what she is told. Initially their role in the series is merely to provide differing viewpoints on the machinations at the court, but they later become more closely involved in events at the Kingdom begins to break down. Eddard’s wife Catelyn also gets her own chapters. After a message from her sister (wife of the murdered adviser to the King) warning of a conspiracy at court she travels south separately from her husband and the King’s party to investigate things for herself. Her son Bran, crippled after injuries sustained in his fall, is left in the North and is the final Stark point of view character, observing his family’s land’s preparations for war as the situation in the South deteriorates.

There are also three point-of-view characters from the Stark’s main rivals, the Lannister family. Queen Cersei, a reluctant bride to a King she feels doesn’t respect her is continually trying to ruthlessly manipulate everyone around her for her family’s and children’s advantage. Her twin brother Jaime, a member of the King’s personal bodyguard and infamous for having treacherously killed the last Targarayen King is more loyal to his family than the King he supposedly serves. Their younger brother Tyrion, is the black sheep of the family, his serious disabilities lead to him to be nicknamed ‘the Imp’ by his fellow nobles and he is held in contempt by his father, his sister and most of the rest of the nobility despite being clearly the most intelligent and cunning of the Lannister siblings. Although the Lannisters are, to a large extent, the villains of the series, Martin still succeeds in showing that from their point of view what they do is sometimes justified and Tyrion is arguably one of the heroes of the series despite being on the same side as most of the series’ antagonists.

Another plot thread follows Eddard's illegitimate teenage son, Jon Snow. Faced with his stepmother's hostility, he leaves home to join the Night's Watch – an army of men who guard the Northern frontier of the kingdom, from behind a giant wall of stone and ice. He finds it difficult to adjust to the Watch's harsh lifestyle and attitudes, but there are more serious difficulties ahead as sightings of the walking dead are reported in the wild lands beyond the Wall. Although the “Others”, beings who once controlled the whole continent with their armies of undead are widely believed to be merely ancient myths, the isolated men of the Night’s Watch soon discover that they were anything but stories, and with the rest of the country falling into Civil War they’ll have to hold the Northern frontier as best they can.

The final plot thread follows the two surviving members of the Targarayen dynasty, in exile on a distant continent. Viserys Targarayen is the notional heir, and he is determined to reclaim the kingdom for his family, to achieve this he marries off his teenage sister Danerys (the main character in the plot thread) to the leader of the Dothraki, a nomadic tribe of warriors, who he thinks will help him reclaim his crown. However, the Dothraki have their own plans, and Danerys finds herself more willing to go along with them than her cruel elder brother. After being given a gift of supposedly fossilised dragon’s eggs she realises if she can hatch them, she may be able to regain her family’s Kingdom.

In later books additional point-of-view characters including female knight Brienne, smuggler-turned-noble Davos and intelligent but overweight and pampered Night’s Watch recruit Sam (exiled by his noble father, disapproving of his son’s weakness as a heir) are added to the story providing additional perspectives on the plot.

The initial premise is reasonably straightforward, but things quickly get more convoluted in each of the plot threads, every character (and there are a lot of characters) has their own agenda and their own motivations. Martin also has a liking for sudden (and generally violent) plot twists, including a few surprising deaths of seemingly major characters – even though there is some foreshadowing, there are bound to be a few surprises for even the most alert reader. At times it can be difficult to keep track of every small event, but Martin does a good job of highlighting the major plot points.

Martin has an efficient writing style that manages to convey all the important details and nuances of a situation without wasting time on excessive description (unlike some other epic fantasy authors, such as Robert Jordan) so the books are generally quite fast moving. Despite this, the sheer amount of story means that all four volumes published so far have been approaching the 1000-page mark. Martin's characters are well thought out, and their motivations are convincing. This is not one of those books where good triumphs over evil by default, even if a character acts with the best of intentions there is still a strong chance of things going horribly wrong, the best example being Eddard's attempts to apply his own personal code of honour and integrity to life whilst getting involved in court politics, with disastrous consequences. Most of the characters can't be neatly divided into 'good' or 'evil' categories, his heroes tend to be flawed in some way and most of villains either aren't so villainous from their perspective, or at least have some redeeming features, for example Jaime Lannister initially seems like a straightforward villain but when things are shown from his viewpoint in the later books his motivations for some of his villainous actions do make them more understandable, even if they don't make them entirely justified.

Despite the complexity of the story, there were few signs in the first three books of control of the plot getting away from Martin. However, the fourth book, A Feast For Crows was, while still being good, a comparative disappointment as the pace of the plot slowed significantly and only small steps were made towards the main story arcs being resolved. The extended wait for book 5, "A Dance With Dragons", which is currently several years behind schedule has also raised concerns about how long it will take for the series (predicted to be seven books long) to be finished.

The slow rate of publication is the only major weakness in Martin's writing. There isn't really a single factor that has made Martin's series one of the most acclaimed Fantasy series of all time, instead its popularity is probably due to it doing many things well. The plot is compelling, original and often surprising. It is by turns thrilling, touching, shocking, intriguing, thoughtful and exciting, and it is consistently entertaining throughout. It features vivid and memorable characterisation and a fascinating, convincing and highly detailed world. Even in its current, unfinished, state “A Song Of Ice And Fire” is a very impressive, superbly written, work of fantasy that stands as one of the best pieces of work in its genre.

A Games Of Thrones Rating : 10 / 10

A Clash Of Kings Rating : 10 / 10

A Storm Of Swords Rating : 9 / 10

A Feast For Crows Rating : 8 / 10

The fifth book, A Dance With Dragons will hopefully appear in 2011, although a release date has yet to be confirmed. 2011 will also see the first season of HBO's TV adaptation of the series, retitled "A Game of Thrones".