Wednesday, February 1, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 33: Tangled Up in Blues

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

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


  1. Something I found really cute about this story is that bits of the text match up with Blues's actions in some episodes. The story gave me a new appreciation for certain snippets of Over A Barrel (when he jumps through a window) and Owls Well That Ends Well (the stargazing scene) in particular.

  2. You know, I totally would NOT have gotten past page 1 if you hadn't recommended it. I really don't like the tie-in-everything mentality.

    However. Cake. Cake has saved my interest. The cake is not a lie. I will continue.

    1. Done.

      Well. I say.

      I did enjoy it, thought I described it to a friend as 'panning for gold'. You know there's good shit in there, it just feels like a lot of effort to get it.

      Once it got past the bulk of the 'episode hard-points', it was thoroughly enjoyable to read, right up until the last screen-full.

      I hate that ending. I actually mean HATE too. It infuriates me to end such a tale of self-discovery and empowerment on a note that, for me at least, gives away all Blues' achievement in deference to his mentor. Such a negative way of looking at life, and a bad lesson to take home.


      From Blues' taking the 3 colts under his wing, up to right before the ending I dislike, was brilliant. A fine example of why life experience is a must for really good writing (just like the blues!). The way it's written just screams 'I get it' on the part of the author, and then 'just shut up and learn something'.

      Just seemed like too good of a story to be mucking about with all those tie-ins. Or, I'm just a crotchety old bastard. Take your pick.

    2. Hmm...apparently I WAS actually in a crotchety mood earlier.

      Sorry about that Descendant (if you ever read this).

      Not that I've changed my opinions...I just didn't need to be such a tosser about it. I won't delete the message, as that would be hiding from my error.

      The bulk of it really was enjoyable, and it did give me a few tears (on several occasions), which is always high prise for any fiction, I think.

  3. 5.0? O.o I didn't think that was possible past a dozen or so ratings. The system does, to my knowledge, round up, but this is the first time I've ever heard of it going to 5.0. Amazing.

    And yeah, Rainbow Dash's plight was kind of harrowing. It didn't ruin the episode for me or anything, but I started to feel bad for laughing after a while.

    1. Sorry, but watching RD get denied was one of the very few saving graces in that episode for me. Reap what ye sow young mare!

    2. It's always interesting to me just what people do and do not like about particular episodes. Just another reason to love this blog. :)

  4. I have to ask: It's obvious from your review that you felt this story deserved a high score from you, but it's not so clear why you gave this story four stars instead of five. Is it only because of the confusion with tenses? I don't mean to debate about where on your scale this story should be, it just feels really ambiguous here.

    1. Thank you for asking! The tense shifting was a MAJOR issue for me. Without that, I'd have probably given it five stars--the only other issues I could point to are really quibbles.

      Still, when I come across paragraphs like:

      "I clean myself off, shivering from the cold. I hear Applejack yelling at her. I heard the filly, Twilight Sparkle, start to cry and she began to run away. I was not enough of a stallion to stop her and tell her that it's okay. Instead my back was to her as she went, and I am instead upset, and I wondered if this is what Moody meant by mares being a good source of the blues."

      it's hard for me to forgive. As I said in the review, it's so omnipresent that I think it must be deliberate, but for the life of me I can't imagine why it was done. Throughout the story, lines like the above constantly broke my immersion, and so I didn't feel like I could award it the full five stars.

      Hope that clears up my thinking in assigning the rating that I did. If you think I've been unfair, please let me know--feedback is always appreciated, and I try to keep it in mind when writing subsequent reviews.

  5. This story is... amazing.

    I literally have no other words to say how much I like it, and that's saying a lot for me. Just... give me a minute. I'll think of some.

    It... everything. Everything I love. It has it. I don't love everything in it, but of everything it has, everything I love is in it. OK I need to think of more words. Let me try this again.

    I love background ponies. To me they're the unadulterated symbol of hidden depth. The show doesn't give any back-story to them, but it does give them enough character that we know they have lives, and when I see one of those lives imagined so spectacularly it just plain makes me happy. It's like being given a scoop of your favorite ice cream, but then learning that the person who gave you the ice cream is actually your best childhood friend who you thought died in the war, but has now miraculously returned, right when you missed them the most. Same exact feeling.

    Also rationalization. It's easy to pick apart or ignore inconsistencies, but making good reasons why things are how they are is a challenge. To see it done so much in this story--with the explanations of how Blues ended up in all the different situations, and why there are multiple background ponies that look the same, etc.--was like a game, and every time the author succeeded it made me proud. With his skill I'm inclined to think he might even be able to make a good rationalization for the one time Blues turned into a cyclops.

    OK now I'm using too many words. I just... have to compliment it! Not only was the story amazing, but after doing a little research it turns out that The Descendant and I not only started posting stories on EqD at practically the same time, but we were releasing them at about the same speed as well... until I stopped that is. Not only that but Lucky! Lucky's always been my favorite, and here he is being an awesome wingman right in front of me! So. Much. APPROVAL! It's like The Descendant is a talented, vastly superior, un-arrowed-in-the-knee version of myself from an alternate dimension. At least as far as writing goes.

    I have so much more praise I wish to spew, but I must contain it. Self control people. Self control. The Descendant? If you ever read this give yourself five bucks for me, because that's what I would do if I were there.

  6. The author and I have exchanged a couple of e-mails since I posted this--he tells me that he's "been getting replies all day at FIMFiction and DA from people informing me that you wrote up the review, and telling me that 'the awesome authors' all respond." As an aside, I do love it when an author drops in to comment on my reviews, but I'm sure those who don't are awesome, too. Since he doesn't do blogger, I'm going to post some of his comments (all with his permission, of course. He's actually the one who suggested it!). Below, his thoughts:

    1. As for the review all that really needs saying is that you maintained the same fair, impartial, and thorough examination of the work that I have noted in other reviews by yourself, and that I am happy that you enjoyed the work for the most part.

      As for the one part you did not enjoy, I have only this to say: I am an idiot.

      The tense changes were deliberate, an attempt by myself to allow Blues to try to draw the reader back into the actual moment that was being described rather than simply seem to stand there and be "telling" the reader what transpired by "showing" them. I can only admit that the attempt failed, as this has been the single most criticized aspect of the work. I have attempted to revise the story on a number of occasions, but examples of the breach in conventional language persist, and I am at a loss to discover them all.

      Oh well, just goes to prove that there is a world of difference between being "prolific" and being "proficient", eh?

      I am especially happy that you enjoyed the running gags. I chose these rather carefully, and like the other repeated themes (the dead ship captains, "painted blue") I had to walk a very narrow path. That you feel I used them properly means quite a bit to me.

      I'd also like to point out how well you've observed an important aspect of my writing, namely how my language does not match the general style of the fandom. This is a result of my principal literary interests being Victorian and Elizabethan in nature, as you noted. I realize that it keeps many people from reading my stories, and that this precludes me from writing "the great epic of the fandom", but it has rewarded me in many ways. I have written for other fandoms, but none as large as this one, and I have met so many wonderful people, many of whom share my interests in language and writing.

      It has bit me hard too. My lowest ranked story was hit by the double critique of being "purple prose" and the readership incorrectly assuming that I was moralizing. Oh well.

      In summary, your review matched the usual high standard of fairness and thoroughness that you set for yourself. I am delighted that you enjoyed it, and that it now shares a 4 star rating on your blog with Phantom Fox's Sunny Skies All Day Long, the wonderful story which convinced me to begin writing for the Pony fandom.

      I only just now realize that you are working through the six-star list in order! In time this means you will reach my only other six-star story (6 historically, since voted down to a 4.8), A Cup of Joe! It's a very similar story to Tangled Up in Blues in that it's about a background character, but departs in many crucial aspects. I promise you that, no matter how you rate that work these many months from now, I am confident that you will be fair and thorough...

      ...and I further promise that story has no daft tense changes!

      Best of luck with everything!

      The Descendant of Keh'An
      The Descendant

    2. Aha, I think I know which story The Descendant's talking about here, when he claims that the style bit him hard. It's almost certainly The Talk.

      I've said this before on other venues (and I'm probably going to have to crosspost this on DA, with some minor modifications), but I'm pretty sure that The Talk was accused of purple prose because the flowery and descriptive language was woefully unsuited for the kind of story that was being told. It was about an awkward sex-ed-type discussion between Twilight and Spike, and while florid prose works magnificently sometimes, it is not what the narrative was calling for.

      Most of the time, this sort of story works best with a succinct, lighthearted, and to-the-point narrative. Elegant works better than eloquent in the majority of cases.

      The fact of the matter is that this kind of situation is always uncomfortable. By making light of it, you add a degree distance between the reader and the awkward scenario. In a lot of cases, it's used to make cringe comedy.

      However, The Descendant's usual style is the absolute opposite of this.

      For instance, when Spike talks about how the thought of Twilight sleeping around makes him uncomfortable, it's described like this:

      Twi felt her own eyes watering, witnessing the horrible majesty of this, his great fear. Inside her mind her metaphorical troops began melting away, their manes on fire in a comedic way, some with "X's" in their eyes and tongues hanging out in a cartoonish parody of a lost battle. The dragon advanced upon her in that metaphor…his claws marked "Fear", his teeth labeled "Concern".

      Far too much description for something like this. It is a mundane (if awkward) situation, and using terms like "the majesty of this, his great fear," are very overstated and out of place. The weight of this description is best reserved for things like death, loss, God, hatred, heavy things like that. Not sex ed. The inappropriate context is why I think it struck many people as being purple.

      As for the moralizing, well... I think that the narrative fails to represent both sides of the situation fairly, which is what probably lead people to think that it was moralizing in the first place.

      Twilight's claim that she could do anything with her own body was given very little narrative consideration. It was little more than an offhand comment and read almost like she was being petulant rather than trying to refute any sort of argument.

      Adding to this is Spike's dialogue, which seems to come from a moral position rather than wishes for Twilight's well-being. It implies that sex is only appropriate between two individuals who love each other - otherwise the female party will get hurt. While this is understandable from Spike (who is a child), Twilight does not refute this in any way. She does not say that sex does not imply an emotional investment from females any more than it does for males.

      The ending it had settled on was that of a conclusion at the end of a debate. Like it was the one right conclusion, and that all was well and good in this.

      Additionally, I was thinking about her father's thoughts on Twilight one day having sex. Yes, it is unpleasant to think about your children having sex with strangers who don't care about them, and this will come off as very crass, but try flipping that situation around.

      Twilight will now be thinking about her father having sex. With her mother! No matter how much they love each other, no kids want to think about their parents being intimate. She probably wants him to pass the brain bleach as well!

      On a side note: Once you get to it, and I cannot plug this enough, The Descendent's The Song of Syhlex is a much more appropriate use of this Victorian/Elizabethian-style prose. I had the fear of God put into me after I read it.