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In second grade, I read a book about famous British explorers. One of the many names it mentioned was Sir James Clark Ross, who explored both the Arctic and the Antarctic in the early- to mid-1800's. The book casually mentioned that he spent three years searching for the exact location of magnetic north, only to discover that the magnetic north pole shifts a few degrees every year. Despite the fact that Ross was a famous, wealthy, and successful man by any standard, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming pity for him. To work for so long, to make such sacrifices, and in the end to still be unable to accomplish such a simple, straightforward goal...something about that resonated deeply with me. To this day, thinking about it touches a deep well of sorrow within me that I can't fully explain.
I offer this glimpse of my childhood in the hope that it will offer some insight as to why, in my opinion, watching Rainbow Dash repeatedly being denied the chance to buy a mug of cider was perhaps the most heart-wrenchingly sad thing I've ever seen from an episode of My Little Pony. And no, the fact that I knew full well she'd get some by the end didn't make me feel any better.
Anyway, my review of The Descendant's Tangled Up in Blues, after the break.
Impressions before reading: The Descendant is one of the more prolific authors in the fandom, with 15 stories currently posted on EqD. I've read several of his pieces, and a few of them I greatly enjoyed, but this one's new to me.
Also, this is the first story I've read for my reviews that has a perfect 5.0 composite rating. I don't know how the star counter handles rounding, but it goes without saying that this one's been uniformly highly rated.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: The story of Blues (a blue-colored background pony with two 8th notes for a cutie mark), from the day he found his calling in life to present-day Ponyville.
Thoughts after reading: Before we go any further, I just have to quote this line from the opening chapter: "[I'm] the first one be told "Sorry kid, all sold out!" when waiting for something good." Given that I wrote the bit above the break before I opened this document, that's downright creepy. Okay, moving on.
If you have ever read any of the author's stories, you already know that he has a very distinct writing style. For lack of a better word, I would describe this style as "Victorian:" rich prose filled with flowing, flowery language. Personally, I enjoy his writing style immensely, but readers unused to it may find his stories too dense for their liking. Tangled Up in Blues is actually one of his more accessible stories, from a writing standpoint--although it's easily recognizable as a story by The Descendant, the text is quite a bit more prosaically straightforward than some of his other pieces. While appreciation (or lack thereof) of his style is entirely a matter of personal preference, I would urge that any potential reader give the story a fair shake--read at least a chapter or two before deciding that the language is a barrier to your enjoyment. Unlike far too many authors, The Descendant does not misuse his words; the prose may be more florid than most fanfic writers', but don't confuse that with the purple prose that litters so many lower-quality works.
However, there is one thing about the story (from a technical perspective, that is) which baffles me: the constant shifting of tense. Throughout the story, Blues (as the narrator) shifts from past to present tense incessantly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. I'm almost inclined to call these mistakes, but the sheer number of them, combined with the near-total lack of other errors in the text, leads me to believe that this was deliberate. If so, I think it's safe to say I didn't understand the reason. Was it an attempt to mimic the way the mind sometimes loses itself in the past when one reminisces? Was it intended to blur the distinction between the memories and the events themselves? Whatever the purpose, it's clear I didn't "get" it. As such, I found these constant shifts to be very distracting.
As for the story itself... I've sat here, staring at the screen for more than a minute, trying to find the right word to describe it. It's Blues' story, from his childhood all the way to his present-day activities, and it's filled to the brim with all of the things which life itself brings: happiness and sorrow, excitement and disappointment, good luck and ill fortune. There's a little of everything here.
In another story, that might not work. Such a broad range, spread over such a long time chronologically, can easily bog down into an uninteresting and indecipherable morass. However, the author has two things going for him which prevent this from happening: first, he uses a series of motifs to tie the story together. From silly asides (every single mare he meets is "the prettiest filly I ever saw") to broader thematic links, the entire story is carefully bound together, such that it never loses focus despite its meandering nature.
The other thing which holds the tale together is the expert pacing of the story. Authors and readers often look at pacing only insofar as it relates to characters: has there been enough setup to justify Rainbow Dash kissing [insert pony here]? Have the other cast members caused enough trouble for Applejack to explain why she blows a gasket and screams at them? These questions are important, of course, but there's more to pacing than just making sure that in-story actions are justified. The reader's experience is key, and that's where Tangled really shines.
The story ranges in tone from mournful introspection in the face of death to straight-up slapstick pratfalls, yet no element ever feels out of place. Each time the weight of the tale threatens to overwhelm the reader, a bit of the lightness which is a hallmark of MLP is allowed to shine through. Conversely, much of the humor has meaningful subtext (and as often as not, regular old text) which adds depth despite its farcical appearance. And the transitions between each are carefully chosen. Often these shifts are gradual, but on the occasions when they are sudden or blatant, it is always done with purpose.
The ending resolved itself somewhat more completely than I expected. With a life story like this, I usually expect to see a few more threads hanging loose; things in real life never truly come to an end, and many stories of this sort try to leave a few things open-ended to show that the characters' lives are still ongoing, even after the audience stops watching. However, I didn't feel that any part of the conclusion was inappropriate or unsatisfying; it just surprised me a little. And in the end of both a story and of life, there's nothing quite like a (pleasant) surprise.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
This is one of the funniest, most heart-wrenching fanfics I've read. I can honestly say that after reading it, I have a new appreciation for Blues, a background character to whom I'd previously given almost no thought to at all. That's one of the marks of a great character study, but this is more than that; it's a spellbinding story in its own right.
I just wish I knew what was up with the constant tense shifting.
Recommendation: As I mentioned, the writing style is not for everyone. However, I think any reader who's ever read and enjoyed anything by Dickens, Tolkien, or any of a number of other loquacious authors I could name, should give this a look. It's a long read, but it's immensely satisfying. Although I budgeted several days to read it, I devoured the entire story in one breathless sitting, which I think speaks to its quality more eloquently than anything else I could say.
Next time: Misted Stage, by Raz_Fox