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Your emphasis on the rising middle class is rather anachronistic. The middle class in England in 1460 was rather like the Mormon church in America today. Both are growing and both are, in some places, well established, but the idea that merchants then or Mormons now are the real story, and the people who presently run the government don't matter very much, strikes people as nutty in either era.

P.S. My impression of the last book was that hope for Jon is misplaced.

Ralph H.

Never read much fantasy (except of course The Once and Future King) but love the miniseries because of high production values and some good acting. Conveys the pessimism that must have been felt by rational people during the early middle ages -- the time of King Alfred, perhaps, who managed with only brief success to establish, by force of arms, the rule of law. & I disagree that the female characters in GoT are badly drawn. Many are strong, wily, mixing guile and honorable intentions as they partner out of necessity with strong men. Tyrion's whore (Shae?) stands out, and Cersei may be bloody-minded but she sees things clearly and speaks the truth to Sansa during the Blackwater battle. Ygritte and Osha are admirable and resourceful. You should cut them some slack.

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenhenheim den Sidste

Essays like this are why I keep coming back: good reading, good thinking, good writing.


I'll say it: Harry Potter IS MOST CERTAINLY a better fantasy than A Song of Ice and Fire, which I find starts out well but becomes a boring slog by book four, and an utter dud by book five. The Potter books are structurally superior, and JK Rowling is a far better prose stylist than GRRM.

Further, you're not getting a whole lot wrong by not having read the most recent books. The "smart" characters become dullards in DANCE: Tyrion and Daenerys are especially doltish, which is shocking. Nobody shows the slightest hint of admirable quality; the Iron Bank plotline -- which isn't so much a plotline as a plot device -- reeks of "We need to pay off these annoying Jews to whom we owe money". About the only character who, at this point, is maintaining my interest is Jaime Lannister -- but he's a provisional case, because he has barely appeared in two out of five books, and even he is overly mopey because his incestuous relationship with Cersei is in a bit of a spot.

As for magic and the rest of the world, well, what of them? Even after five books there's not a great deal of magical agency in this world, and what there HAS been still hasn't been explained or used in any interesting way other than to continually hint, for several THOUSAND pages, at Cool Stuff To Come. And yes, there IS a rest of the world, but influence and connection and history have almost no real sense in GRRM -- they're just locations where stuff happened at some point.

Worse, though, is that Martin's books are a structural mess, and -- like I've written on my own blog when I re-read these infernal books last year -- he's basically writing a giant soap opera, as opposed to any kind of coherent story. Characters show up or disappear completely for hundreds of pages at a time. (If your favorite character is Sansa and she's the only reason you're reading, then good news! You needn't bother with ANY of DANCE WITH DRAGONS!) Daenerys spends just about all of DANCE being stupidly indecisive, not for any reason that makes sense, but because her BIG MOMENT can't come until Page 800, so what's a girl to do until then? Martin keeps the cast of characters inexorably growing, too: hundreds of pages spent in the land of Dorne (which I have yet to meet anyone who cares about). New villains who always have to be more awful than the last ones. More claimants to the throne.

True, there were moments in the Potter books -- especially the last one -- when it was clear that JK Rowling wasn't quite sure how to get from Point A to Point B, so the books would meander a bit before she finally found her bearing again. (The "wandering around the British wilderness" middle third of DEATHLY HALLOWS is a prime example.) But Martin seems to have been thrashing about for two whole books now, if not part of three. I'm not sure he's really going anywhere, at this point, and that the series won't so much end as stop.

Basically, I think that the series's popularity springs out of the fact that we're in a cultural place right now where we really like our dystopias, whether we set them in the far future, the far past, or right here right now. The dominant tropes of our fiction now seem to involve Awful People Behaving In Awful Ways, which is why -- as I did in our Twitter exchange a few days ago -- I put this series in the same cultural space as The Wire, The Sopranos, and all the rest. We seem to really like our pessimistic stories right now. I hope the wheel turns the other way, soon...and not just for the sake of the stories I am trying to write and publish myself.

Doug K

like you I read the first few books long ago. Similarly I abandoned the pursuit of the tangled skein of sagas, for several reasons: it appeared to be written for television right from the start, the repetition of episodic chapters ending in cliffhangers became wearisome; the unremitting brutality and stupidity as you note, similarly tedious; and all the protagonists keep on dying, so there is no-one to care about and all that's left is to watch the spectacle passing by. I'm not much for brutal spectacles. We have improved on the Roman approach, providing circenses but avoiding the expense of panem..

Jacquandor, Neal Stephenson noticed that same infectious pessimism, and started the Hieroglyph project in resistance. I suspect that climate deniers notwithstanding, we as a species do understand in an inchoate way that we are boiling the planet, and all our futures are narrowing to a small selection of dystopias.. it's hard to maintain optimism in the face of this plus vampire squid capitalism.

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