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If it seems to you like all the stories I review are sad, let me put your mind at ease. Out of the 116 (as of this writing) 6-star stories on Equestria Daily, only 18 carry the [sad] tag. Since we've already done Today, Tomorrow, and Forever, Memorial, Bubbles, and now this one, that means that only 14/108ths of the remaining stories are sad. That's a mere 13%! Plenty of happy ponies on the horizon.
In the meantime, however, we have a story that not only isn't about happy ponies, it isn't about ponies at all. Yes, it's time for a Spike story! Below the break, my review of Larathin Bradely's A Summer Twilight.
Impressions before reading: Ever since Dragonshy revealed that adult dragons are apparently so long-lived that they can settle down for a century-long siesta and think nothing of it, people have been speculating about Spike's eventual fate. Barring tragedy, he's clearly going to live at least a couple of orders of magnitude longer than any normal pony. This story is one of the earliest attempts to answer that question, and certainly one of the most famous.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Grown to maturity, Spike reflects back on Twilight Sparkle, the other ponies he knew as a baby, and his responsibilities to the deceased.
Thoughts after reading: In ficwriting, there is a fine line between sorrow-inducing and silly. After all, laughter is a natural way to react to discomfort, and what's more discomfiting than bearing witness to someone else's sorrow?
The first two-thirds or so of this story are appropriately sad, without ever diving into the kind of maudlin theatrics that turn tears into giggles. The reality that one will, barring mishap, outlive one's parents is something that we all must face at some point in their lives. By treating Twilight as a mother figure, Larathin makes the tragedy of Spike's longevity accessible and relatable to everyone. Even though people aren't really equipped to imagine a life spanning millennia, we can all recognize what it's like to lose a parent. Similarly, Spike and Luna talk about what it's like to watch the ponies you love die, but although their perspective on the matter is tinged by the centuries upon centuries which they know they will each face, the framing is done in terms which anyone can relate to. This helps give the story more impact, by providing the reader with a chance to see him/herself in Spike's reactions.
Unfortunately, Twilight's note at the end (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that she dies, since that's the impetus for the story. Likewise, the note is mentioned in the first page) pushes too hard, and induces more eye-rolling than tears. I have a couple of problems with the execution, the first being excessive dramatic coincidence. Twilight happening to die while Spike was out at the Summer Sun Celebration was a dramatic coincidence, but at a level which I was prepared to tolerate. After all, it could happen easily enough; it doesn't require any great suspension of disbelief for me to imagine events unfolding that way. But the level of prescience which Twilight shows in that note, coupled with the series of events and decisions required to get that note in Spike's claws, shattered the believability for me. There are simply too many things that had to 'just happen' in order for the story to unfold the way it did. Are any of them impossible? Well, no...but collectively, they aren't terribly likely.
The other problem with the note is that it's full of cliches. Cliches are like maraschino cherries: not everyone likes them, but nobody's gonna whine too much if you put one on their sundae. Pile a couple dozen on top, however, and no-one over the age of eight will be interested (analogies, on the other hand, are like parenthetical comments: I use them far too often, even when they're totally unnecessary). Likewise, tired old truisms about death and love don't go very far. It's true that Twilight's letters to Celestia in the show are full of these kind of well-worn chestnuts, and it's entirely possible that the author was attempting to emulate this style. The problem is that most people roll their eyes at Twilight's letters, and that's my reaction here. It may be faithful to her writing style in canon, but it breaks the mood of this story as surely as anything.
Still, the rest of the story succeeds where that note fails. Spike's growing realization that everypony he knows will die long before he passes on is dealt with very light-handedly, never diving into maudlin wails or overly-angsty introspection. Likewise, the reader isn't beat over the head with the guilt Spike feels over being absent when Twilight died. This gentle approach to such emotionally-charged events helps the reader invest themselves more in the story, emotionally.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
Other than the letter, this is a very well-executed story. It makes its premise achingly universal, drawing upon some of the most basic tribulations of human existence to lend itself meaning and power.
Recommendation: This is a story who's fundamental crisis everyone can relate to. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sad story.
And yes, I cried.
Next time: Timelords and Terror, by Hephestus