Wednesday, February 8, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 36: Tales

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

When I was at the market recently, I came upon a chicken-based processed lunch meat being marketed as "halal Spam."  Well, with a pitch line like that, I had to try a can.

Sadly, it was pretty marginal.  I guess there's just no substitute for mechanically separated pork shoulder.  Oh well, live and learn.

George Pollock Jr.'s Tales, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  I found this story very engaging when I first read it. Hopefully my first impressions will hold up, but in previous reviews we've seen that that isn't always the case.  Those dangerous words, "alternate universe," appear prominently in the description, after all.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Now in her waning years, Twilight Sparkle looks back on the ponies she knew, and the way they shaped both her and Equestria at large.

Thoughts after reading:  Well, let's start by talking about that AU thing.  This story was written over the course of several months, starting in February '11, and wasn't submitted to EqD until it was complete.  By then, season one was over and large swaths of the story (Spike's backstory in particular, and a number of smaller matters) had been refuted by the later episodes.  While I understand how this can be off-putting to some readers, I have never had any problem with stories that were valid when written, but have been disproved since.  After all, and if taken to its illogical extreme, holding such a standard would mean I'd have to downgrade every season 1 fanfic that called Derpy "Ditzy Doo," or which didn't have Luna speaking in the third person.

Tales is written as a series of short vignettes, most under a thousand words, chronicling Twilight's recollections of her friends.  Each chapter jumps freely backwards and forwards in time, pulling out highlights from her life as they occur to her (although there isn't really a framing device, it's obvious that she's telling the story to someone--to the reader, to one of her grandfoals, whatever).  Handled poorly, this kind of chronological freewheeling can make it difficult to parse order of events and can really weaken a narrative.  Here, the author has shown the potential of such a writing style.

I think a great deal of this success can be attributed to the masterful structuring of Twilight's remembrances.  When she's recalling happy times, the narration dithers over irrelevant asides and tends to repeat itself.  In another story that kind of repetition might be a flaw, but here it nicely mimics the "yes grandma you told us that twice already"-ness which is the hallmark of these kind of reminisces.  When more personal and tragic memories surface, the tale becomes crisper and more succinct.  Having spent most of my life in the American Midwest, where stoicism in the face of tragedy is considered a virtue, the almost clinical way in which Twilight speaks about the anguish of losing a loved one resonates strongly with me.  George Pollock Jr. really captured the understated pain and suffering of such a loss in several places, and I admit to tearing up myself more than once as I read.

The Equestria which the author writes about appears somewhat darker than the one in the show, but never is this taken to unbelievable extremes (again, taking into account the time frame during which this was written).  Also, those "personal and tragic memories" I alluded to above do involve ponies dying--and in one case, that death is described in a manner that I found disturbing.  Not gory or excessively graphic, you understand (I have little taste for gore myself, and I know many readers feel likewise), but the clinical, almost emotionless description of how that pony died left such a vivid image in my mind that I couldn't shake it.  I'll credit the author for very effective writing there, though I won't deny that a large part of my reaction is probably because the tone of the narration matched so well my own when I talk about a family tragedy.  As I said before, the author has done well to capture the reaction to past sorrow so powerfully.  I know it left me shaken to read it.

Large swaths of the story are never fully explained (like what was up with that damn cloak...).  Often, this is because Twilight's perspective is the only one available, and she didn't know all the details herself.  While this is obviously a necessary restriction of the format chosen for this story, it left me incredibly frustrated at times.  There was just so much more I wanted to know!  Yet these unknown elements serve their purpose well; by giving the reader tantalizing hints that Equestria may be a bigger place than this story has room to tell, they expand the scope of the world they inhabit and make its residents more believable for it.

Star rating:    (what does this mean?)

The writing and structure of this story are homey and welcoming, at once relaxed in manner and eager to share.  Some of the plot details may be dated in many ways, but I refuse to fault it for that.  For anyone like myself, anyone who's sat wide-eyed at the kitchen table, listening to their grandmother telling stories of friends long departed and events long past, I have no doubt that this story will resonate strongly.

Admittedly, I had a very Norman Rockwell-esque childhood.  But that doesn't change anything I've said about Tales.

Recommendation:  Everyone should read this story.  The only objections I can imagine stem from inconsistencies between this fic and episodes/word of Faust that came after it was written.  For all readers who can overlook that, this is a stunningly engaging read.

Next time: Trouble Comes in Threes, by Slowpoke


  1. You reviewing this got me to finally read this like I've meant to do for ages, and indeed it is one of the best examples of writing in the fandom. And chapter 8... dang, that was tragic, almost needlessly so. It works in the context of the story, but still. It doesn't help that she's tied for my favorite pony, and the exact circumstances of the death, namely when she died. What Twilight said rings very true indeed. That one chapter will have a lasting impact on me for certain, and that's not something easily achieved.

  2. I remember reading this before and feeling kinda lukewarm until one bit made me stop reading. The thing is, I couldn't remember what that was, exactly.

    I went through and found it again- "shivered a little bit. That's when I remembered he's a reptile and because of that, he's cold-blooded."

    NO! Reptiles do not shiver because they are ectotherms; they get their heat from outside sources. They do not try to thermoregulate by shivering - thermoregulation is what homeotherms do.

    I realise this is very nitpicky, and I definitely would have kept reading and would have not cared at all if it just said something like, "Spike shivered, and I realised he was cold." but attempting to justify it by applying misinformed (and completely incorrect) biology made me simultaneously cringe and click the back button.

    1. True, although if you would be willing as to suspend your disbelief on this: dragons in Equestria cannot necessarily be classified as regular reptiles. The natural/latent thaumic forces, evolutionary effects across the Discordian era, what have you - plenty of ways to explain why Spike shivered. In addition, Spike shivering because of the cold is Twilight's opinion, and therefore is potentially wrong. He could have shivered for some reason totally unrelated to heat.

      But yeah, I'm being nitpicky too. >_>

    2. I would be able to buy the unreliable narrator thing about dragon biology if it was from anyone but Twilight (Okay, fine. I wouldn't buy it from Fluttershy either.), but Twilight strikes me as someone who would know the difference between "warm-blooded" and "cold-blooded"*. I don't expect her to know everything, but she just seems like the type of pony who would go and research about dragons if she knew she would have to be taking care of one. Even, let's say, if she decided to be uncharacteristically irresponsible and didn't learn anything about the biological needs of a living being she was caring for, I find it very difficult to believe that Spike never told her that he needs/doesn't need a basking rock, or that he can't go outside in the snow because he'd go into torpor.

      It also doesn't matter if dragons are reptiles or not. The phrase that bugged me was "and because of that, he's cold-blooded." In a biological context, shivering is defined as a bunch of small muscle shakes around the vital organs in order to increase core body temperature. By definition, that is not a "cold-blooded" response. To me it was a bit like saying, "And then because Spike was cold-blooded, he unconsciously regulated his internal body temperature via metabolic processes."

      (I would have honestly not gotten so worked up about your response if you said something along the lines of, "Maybe it's magic. Roll with it." It's just that there's something about defending misinformed science with completely nonsensical science that really gets my goat.)

      * The terms are falling out of use because thermoregulation is a lot more complicated than just something making its own heat. Honeybees would be considered "cold-blooded" by the old model, but they can actually vibrate their flight muscles quickly to produce high temperatures in times of need, and are thus, facultative endotherms.

    3. Huh. I didn't even think of the problem with that passage until you brought it up--guess I need some remedial biology lessons. The more you know!

  3. Just finished the thing in one shot. I have absolutely no regrets.

    I did notice a couple of minor errors - "Sweetapple Acres" and the capitalization of "sugar cube" - but those are tiny things. The maturity of the narrative voice, the sequence and choice of events just blew me away. It's a stunning piece of art, and I'm glad that my meager experience in writing has let me fully appreciate this fic.

    ...dang, now everything else I read is going to be subjected to a ridiculously high standard! Anyhow, thank you Chris for spotlighting this; an amazing and worthwhile read indeed.

  4. I'll be honest, I remember giving this thing a try back in September (that's when I finally gave the show itself a chance) and I think I gave up after at least two or three chapters in (I can't remember the reason). So, I finally read it to end on Sunday in preparation of this review and I have to admit I'm a little lukewarm and rather unmoved. Maybe it's because I've read one too many of the whole "What happened to the cast after XX of years in the future" genre. Maybe it's because I found Twilight's rambling asides to be intrusive. Maybe it's because stories with a sad tag work best for me when they're one-shots (I don't know why this matters, it just does). Maybe it's because I'm naturally hard person. It's probably a combination of all the above.

    Granted, I liked parts (the end of Fluttershy's chapter in particular was one of those "Wow" moments for lack of a better term) and I certainly didn't think it was bad. It just lacked something for me.

    Oh, well at least I enjoyed your review, Chris. It's always good to read different and intelligent opinions.

    1. Let it be known that you're not the only one!

      I thought my first impressions had been mistaken, and the five-star review convinced me to slog through the rest.

      In the end, I was rather unimpressed by the story as a whole. Chapter 4, the one that is almost certainly being referred to in the review, failed to move me at all. Perhaps I have a heart of stone, perhaps it was the use of "OK" instead of "okay", or perhaps it was the narrative constantly referring to a fanon deity with no evidence in canon.

      I think mainly that this fic had the bad luck of hitting most of my pet peeves/least favourite cliches in pony fanfiction. Giving earth ponies a big bag of suck? Check. Implying that the unmarried are secretly unhappy? Check. Future Dash dying before she could become a Wonderbolt? Triple check (She dies during the tryout. By hitting a bird). All of Equestria worshiping a made up god? Check. A Hell, despite that made up religion? Check. Patriarchy in Equestria? Check. Bad science? Check.

      On top of the cold-blooded thing I mentioned earlier, there's also this, "he had the longest teeth I'd ever seen on a pony, so only The Steed knows how old he was then". Old horses are more likely to have short, worn-down, or missing teeth rather than long ones.

      There were lots of little errors on top of that. Usually around one a chapter, which is about one every thousand words. Most of the time the "Sweetapple Acres" that Yours sincerely mentioned. I actually disagree with capitalized "Sugar Cube" being an error, because Applejack is using it as a proper noun. However, there was also "thatyoung" in chapter 3, the OK* in chapter 4, the "darling"s in chapter 5 need to be capitalized (they're being used as proper nouns), "librarian" (when Celestia is addressing Twilight) not being capitalized in chapter 6 for the same reason, OK again in chapter 7, etcetera.

      I finished the story with a "meh" on my lips, wishing that maybe it had been about Fluttershy or Zecora instead. I didn't care much for the dragons or anything else, really, but I would definitely dig a story about Fluttershy and that cloak.

      * Yes, it's a nitpick, but if nitpicking over double spaces after periods rather single space is allowed, then it should also be allowed to nitpick about the informal OK.

    2. Most of the time *it was* the "Sweetapple Acres" that Yours sincerely mentioned.

      Bleh! I ran into Muphry's Law, where immediately after you press post you notice a typo in what you just wrote!

      Safe to say, I will probably notice a typo in this post right after I send it as well. XD

    3. Re: "Sweetapple Acres"

      That's actually one of the things that changed as the season progressed. Much like the spelling of Big Macintosh's name, it wasn't clear what the "official" version was until Faust eventually commented on it. There are several fics from the early days that use Sweetapple Acres, since in episode one it sounds like AJ says it as one word (though Spike clearly enunciates it as two).

      As for the rest... I admit that I had a niggling suspicion when I posted this that not every reader would take to it as I did. Thank you for taking the time to highlight what didn't work for you--getting this kind of feedback helps me write future reviews with an eye to potential readers.

    4. The deity stuff was grating for me, but I kinda shoved that aside. I tried to ignore it and resisted commenting on it because it has the potential to cause ill-will in the real world. Shame really, because it added somewhere between zip and nothing to the whole story.

      Much the same with Celestia's father. I just didn't think it added enough to be worth such a divisive addition, but as Christ said, I can't fault it for having it's own ideas from such an early stage. I can only say that *I* didn't like that stuff.

      Slipping back into curmudgeon (by Luna's beard I love that word) mode, the death didn't really do much for me. It was too easy as a narrative device. It didn't give me any satisfaction as being something that was worked towards or 'set up'. Which is harsh in the sense that the style of the entire thing didn't really lend itself to setting it up, and I have to admit I liked the angle GP took to get the character to the point that it mattered. So I still liked that page anyway, but it just had the bitter taste of feeling like 'cheap tears'.

      The extended lifespan was weird to. Just had the feeling that it didn't serve any real purpose, yet stuck out like a sore thumb. Same for Pinkie and Mac's exceptional proliferation. It just bugged me, but I'm not sure I can express exactly why.

      Pretty much all the rest I can ignore as personal choice of just not knowing what was revealed later. Loved the Spike/Fluttershy conversation, especially Rarity being a little huffy about it. And the cloak, because unlike Chris I didn't find the lack of detail remotely obtrusive. In fact, I'd actually say I appreciated it more for that.

      I enjoyed it, but I honestly can't possibly agree with that score. Not that I'd go below 4/5 mind, it was generally very polished.

    5. ROFL.

      As CHRIS said*

      That's genius. Possibly disturbing...

    6. @ InquisitorM

      I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head about the issue with fanon deities.

      It's not so much that I'm opposed to having them in fics, but that they are so very difficult to do well. As soon as you have the main cast namedropping a fanon deity in casual speech, the fic becomes AU. Even if you are working from the pilot alone, your ignorance here should be no excuse. It's like setting up a backstory where Pinkie Pie was raised by Gannondorf. There is literally no evidence for it (in fact, there's a lot of evidence to the contrary) and you can expect it to be Jossed immediately.

      This also isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it rarely goes past an offhand mention. If you are going to make up new gods and new religions, for the love of Thoth, put some work into it.

      If you want Twilight to be telling God to go screw himself, don't just write dialogue with her cursing God, cross out God and then replace it with The Holy Stallion and call it a day. Sit down and work out your mythology and belief system so that it actually adds something to the story rather than being a lazy way to write in religious oaths and blasphemy.

      Even writing in an Abrahamic God (or Shiva, or Ganesh, or Isis) in would be less grating, since you would already be working with a set of assumptions. The fanon deity route usually comes off as a, "look at me, I made up my own gods but I'm not actually going to do any worldbuilding. Teehee. I'm being mysterious and clever!"

      The only stories I can think of off the top of my head that even work on the theological worldbuilding at all, are Fallout: Equestria and some of The Descendent's writing. I'm not sure if the latter really counts; the whole Well of Souls thing is very vague, and anything to do with the whole Celestia mythology is modifying canon rather than creating something wholecloth.

      Sorry about the ranting. Like I said before, this is one of my biggest pet peeves in pony fanfiction (or fanfiction in general, actually).

    7. Oh Lord. What is up with the Muprhy's Law today.

      I meant, "Even writing in an Abrahamic God (or Shiva, or Ganesh, or Isis) would be less grating".

    8. Which reminds me...*AHEM*

      The Stallion. Anyone, and I do mean absolutely ANYONE who has watched any MLP at all, I would expect to put the 'The Great Mare' or some derivative instead. Unless you were making a conscious choice to buck the show's main trend, in which case you get what you asked for...

    9. I believe it was The Steed, but your point stands.

    10. Quite right. It's just referred to in the masculine.

    11. Anon: You may be interested in the fanon deities presented in The End of Ponies (Celestia and Luna's four sisters, and their mother and father). Reading about Applejack swearing to Epona and Gultophine was odd at first, but this author seems to have thought his gods through.

      More on topic, I loved Tales. Reading it now that canon has eaten it was a bizarre experience, but it's one I'm glad I had. I usually avoid "x main character looks back on her life" fics, but this one really worked for me.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This isn't a tear jerker, unlike some other stories. I didn't cry, but... It does have a strong poignancy. The best way I can describe it is it's not manipulative. It's a very genuine story about the life of Twilight.