Friday, November 18, 2011

6-Star Reviews Part 11: Twilight Sky Over Canterlot

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

First-person story time! I'm always wary of first-person stories; it isn't that there's any reason they can't be good, but they do seem to be terrible a disproportionate amount of the time. But since this got 6-starred, I'm going to go ahead and assume that it is neither so aneurysm-inducingly full of grammar errors that it makes one's eyes bleed, nor a blatant go at authorial wish-fulfillment. Nor, God help us, both at once.

Nope, this definitely isn't one of those, right? Below the break, my review of Foxxy's Twilight Sky Over Canterlot.

Impressions before reading: I know that I read this when it was first written; I remember the premise well enough, although I'm hazy on the specifics. I even left a comment at the time, pointing out some problems but saying that, "This story was excellent. The plot was well-conceived, and the execution laudable."

And hey, Sethisto says it's "Probably one of the best fics on the site!" Can't argue with an endorsement like that.

Zero-ish spoiler summary: Twilight is called back to Canterlot to retrieve some books which she left behind when she moved to Ponyville. While she's there, chance encounters with a couple of familiar ponies will change the way she sees herself and the world around her.

Thoughts after reading: Let me clarify my thoughts on narrative mode. I've always felt that writing in anything other than third person is kind of gimmicky. Not that there's anything wrong with that--the most popular fanfic that I've written is entirely in second person, after all--but in many ways it's like using 3D in movies: most of the time you don't gain anything by the conversion, and there are lots of ways to do it really poorly.

So the first question is this: does this story benefit from being told in first person? Does it use the tools of this mode to do things that could not be done otherwise? If the answer is no, then the story would have been better off told in third person. Many readers find that first-person stories break immersion; the constant use of I and Me to refer to someone else is an omnipresent reminder that the reader is on the outside of the story looking in, which is never a good thing. Does this story use first person in a way that enhances the reader's experience, rather than detracting from it?

In this case, the choice is clearly justified. Twilight's thoughts and actions are blended throughout the story in ways that a more standard narrative choice couldn't have imitated, allowing her thoughts and reflections to mingle with the story's setting and events unimpeded by authorial detachment. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the realization of this choice was imperfect. I believe the following line highlights both the successes and pitfalls of the execution: "All the memories, the sights and sounds of Ponyville stretched out before me, but miles away now, hazy, indistinct, easy to forget with a glance and a shrug and the turn of another page in my workbook." The way that thought and action mix is what makes me glad this was written the way it was in the first place. The fact that one blurs into the other (when taken out of context, it actually becomes a bit clearer; while reading, I had to go back over this line twice before I understood it) and that the entire sentence rambles uncomfortably to a non-destination make me wish that more care had been put into the final product's readability.

Not helping the readability is Foxxy's tendency to slip from the present into Twilight's memories without warning. An early example involves Twilight relaxing in a tub, doodling in her planner, which has a note tucked inside...and now we're flashing back to when she first read the note. No page break, no "My thoughts drifted back to..." All we get is Spike suddenly spouting dialogue, when we know he isn't present in, well, the present. As far as I can make out, the switches between past and present (and corresponding switches in tense) aren't wrong, exactly...but they are jarring, to say the least.

The prose throughout is effusive, a bit too much for my taste. There are plenty instances where unnecessary descriptors begin to clog the story. For example, there are dozens of occasions sprinkled throughout where Twilight describes her lavender nose, her lavender hoof, her lavender horn...the reader knows Twilight is is purple, she knows it, it has nothing to do with the story, and it does nothing to set the scene. Still, the story mostly avoids diving too deep into flowery descriptions and purple prose.

Run-on sentences fill this fic. Some of it I'm willing to forgive, or at least acknowledge as deliberate, since the author was clearly trying to minimize the seams between thought and action through sentence structure. However, when I come across lines like, "I decided she wasn’t really looking at me, and as my eyes focused on her I realized she was not in the cafĂ© at all, she was right behind me, reflected in the glass, but then she was gone, and I turned just in time to see [her] finish her drink and toss the cup on the sidewalk, and it rolled sideways and stopped at my hoof," my first thought isn't that the author has flawlessly welded internal and external narration. Actually, my first thought after reading that was, "Jesus Christ, is that all one sentence?" to which the answer, upon examination, proved to be yes.

That aside, there were other technical issues. Words were used in strange and irregular ways. Vendetta and metrically appear in situations where their normal definitions do not apply, to name two examples from the first few pages. Honestly, I have no idea what the author thought vendetta meant, or what it's supposed to indicate in context. Also, bemusement and senseless (which, bizarrely, is used to describe Twilight's state immediately before launching into a long list of the things she's, um, sensing) from later in the document--it occurs to me that I've been taking all my examples from the first few pages so far, and I don't want anyone to think I'm only reviewing the first quarter of the story. Also, hyphens are altogether absent in places where they're really needed. Still, I'll observe that the spelling and formatting are both good.

The plot meanders from pony to pony and scene to scene with little focus. This is actually quite fitting, since for most of the story Twilight is wandering around Canterlot without any real goals or plans other than to burn some time and visit the spots she used to frequent as a student. To try and capture the open-endedness of real life without your story drifting so far out of focus that the reader becomes bored is a daunting challenge, but it's one that I think Foxxy succeeds at brilliantly. This is, in my opinion, the shining success of this story.

When I say it's a success, I don't mean only that the style fits and doesn't offend, but also that many of the digressions are insightful and pleasurable to read in their own right. From observations about mead to a history of Canterlot's gas lamps, this story is full of asides and tidbits that make the reading experience shine. Although it's unusual in a story, the freeform meanderings from interesting idea to interesting idea rarely bore, and occasionally venture into the truly profound.

The conclusion is fitting and thematically appropriate, but it does carry whispers of deus ex machina. There is no mention or indication anywhere in the story (let alone in canon) that Twilight was capable of the sort of thing she pulls off at the end of the fic. There's a hasty attempt to explain how/why she's capable as she begins to work her magic, but with all the digressions that dot this tale, is it too much to ask that one of them set up this crucial scene?

Twilight's characterization is hard to judge, since we're seeing her from a perspective significantly different than we're used to. The other ponies in the story are hit-and-miss. Celestia doesn't make a lengthy appearance, but she does pretty much what I'd expect her to. The two other ponies with whom Twilight primarily interacts, however, are both less convincing. Granted, neither of them have vastly developed canon personalities, but both of them show a willingness to frankly state intensely personal information without provocation. Twilight's conversations with both often seem unrealistic to the point of melodrama.

I should mention that there is some light shipping in this story. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that there's talk about romantic feelings and physical beauty between and concerning the major characters in this story in ways that suggest shipping, but either way it came completely out of left field and didn't seem to serve any narrative purpose. As I observed in my review of Chasing Rainbows, the lack of explanation for this kind of major character development doesn't sit well with me. Still, as I also noted in that review, I'm aware there are plenty of folks who don't have any problem making those kinds of assumptions.

Star rating: ☆ (what does this mean?)

If I may quote one of the folks who left a comment on this story's EqD page, "This is some James Joyce shit right here." It's true that this story and Ulysses are full of stream of consciousness-style digressions and lack obvious structure. The difference is that Joyce spent seven years weaving literary and narrative meaning into every scene, every character, and every action, to the point where you literally cannot find a single paragraph in that entire story which does not serve a double purpose, and every passage is crammed with historical allusions, philosophical musings, high-concept witticisms, and low-brow humor. Whether you enjoy reading it or not, it's impossible to discount Joyce's most famous work.

As for Twilight Sky...although the (lack of) plot is executed very well, other aspects of this story fall flat. In the end, it lacks the depth to justify its incoherence, it lacks the linguistic awareness to justify its prose, and it lacks the historical and literary grounding to justify its lack of a traditional story arc. Credit to Foxxy for trying something ambitious, but there's less to this story than meets the eye.

I want to add, I had more trouble deciding on a star rating for this story than for any which I've previously reviewed.  The fact is, I really enjoyed reading it, despite all its shortcomings.  Still, I can't ignore those flaws, and I can't help but think what this story could have been.  I just want potential readers to be aware that I struggled with this one for a while before settling on 2 stars.

Recommendation: When I said of this fic that "the execution [was] laudable," I must have been in a really generous mood. Nevertheless, this story does justice to a tangled, unfocused plot--a difficult task to say the least. If you can overlook the violet-tinged, rambling writing, there are some real gems scattered throughout this story.

Next time: The Summer Twilight, by Larathin Bradley


  1. Playing "the writer its always right" game leads to the straightforward conclusion that runon sentences and occasional lavender prose are an attempt to better get inside the head of an intelligent young mind.

  2. What's with the first-person hatred? I have never in my life seen this trend before coming to the MLP fandom. So many people hate first-person, and I really don't understand it. I've always enjoyed writing it, myself.

  3. Well, part of that PP is that most first person is done abysmally poorly. Writing a character from 3rd person seems to be a lot easier than convincing people that you've got that keen of an insight into Twilight.

    Maybe it's more that writing 1st person fanfics suck? I mean, Dresden is great but it's ALSO Butcher's character.

  4. I've never had a problem writing in first person, I guess; maybe that's why I don't understand the sentiment.

  5. I loled at the purple prose joke. :D