Wednesday, March 7, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 43: A Study in Rainbows / The Hound of Ponyville

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

This post actually contains two separate stories.  After waffling a bit, I decided to post both together; even though the second story stands completely separate from the first, they are so similar in tone, writing style, and characterization that I really don't have enough to say about The Hound of Ponyville that isn't true of A Study in Rainbows to justify giving it its own post.  I will, however, rate the two independently.  When I come across sets of stories like this in the future, my decision to post them collectively or independently will be based on a combination of how well they stand alone, and how much I have to say about one story that isn't true of the other.

Totally not influencing my decision in any way is the fact that multiple visitors to this blog will be lining up outside my door with baseball bats if I don't hurry up and get to my review of Simply Rarity.

Thanqol's A Study in Rainbows and The Hound of Ponyville, after the break.

NOTE: This top section is only a review of A Study in Rainbows.  My review of The Hound of Ponyville is featured after it.

Impressions before reading:  At the risk of sacrificing my vaunted (pah!) objectivity, I love this story.  A Study in Rainbows is on the short list of works I'd be willing to consider as my favorite piece of fanfiction ever, and I've been looking forward to doing this review pretty much since I started this site.  This is one of the very few fanfics I enjoyed so much that I went back and re-read it (not counting a re-re-reading for this review, of course).  I'm really looking forward to doing this review.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Rainbow Dash, retired officer, takes up residence in the same suite as Rarity.  In short order, Dash is exposed to the world of high-fashion crime, and the brilliant deductive powers of her flatmate.

Thoughts after reading:  With crossovers, one of the most difficult things to do well is to execute one's story in such a way that folks not acquainted with the material being crossed over with will still enjoy it.  In this case, I think it's safe to say that virtually every person who might stumble upon this fic will be aware of Sherlock Holmes in broad strokes, but it is likely that many will not have read the tale which this is based on, A Study in Scarlet.  In point of fact, I had not read it when I first encountered this fic (though I had read a fair number of Doyle's Holmes stories, and have read that one since).  Although the attention payed to the language might not be fully appreciated by those unacquainted with Doyle's writing style, the story is fully accessible to any reader, regardless of their familiarity with the source material.

That said, I can understand how someone without any grounding in the original Holmes stories (someone who'd only seen the Robert Downey Jr. movies for example, or who only knew of Holmes through cultural osmosis) would find the story less engaging than a person with at least some familiarity with the source material would.  Not only might Thanqol's preservation of the original author's nineteenth-century writing style be a hindrance to such readers, but the contrasts and similarities between the characters from A Study in Scarlet and the ponies who play them would be lost to these folks.  In particular, I think that the Moriarty role (which I can't bring myself to spoil any farther than acknowledging its existence) loses a lot of its humor to anyone who hasn't read The Final Problem, and can appreciate the parody aspects of the abrupt setup and some of the ridiculousness.

This story can essentially be described as "A Study in Scarlet, but with ponies: a parody."  This type of crossover is notoriously difficult to pull off, but I think Thanqol succeeds brilliantly at avoiding most of the pitfalls which can mar such an attempt.  Although the writing style and character dialogue mostly stay true to Doyle, frequent winks are thrown to the audience, both meta-comical (allusions to Daniel Ingram and Equestria Daily in the first chapter, for example.  A few of these I found more cringe-worthy than anything, but most were funny in a deliberately intrusive way) and character based.  Consider this quote, courtesy of Rainbow Dash (in the role of Watson): "'What ineffable twaddle!' I cried, casting [the magazine] aside, 'I have never read anything so dweebish in all my life!'"  The way in which the characters retain their essential identities and mannerisms, even while acting out unfamiliar roles, balances almost perfectly the conflicting requirements that the ponies be recognizably in-character, and that the original story of Doyle's be treated with at least a modicum of respect.

Like all decent parodies, this one begins as a fairly straight re-telling of the story it's based on, then dives off into its own world entirely before coming full circle and ending on a similar note to the original.  Far too many attempts at parody either seem to involve nothing more than find-and-replace-ing the major characters' names, or tie so tangentially into their supposed target that it's nigh-impossible to tell what they're supposed to be a parody of.  A Study in Rainbows plays Doyle's story pretty straight for the first two-plus chapters, then progressively allows its characters more and more leeway to jump the tracks and even introduces a few twists pulled whole cloth from Thanqol's imagination.

Word use is uniformly excellent throughout the story, capturing the writing style of Doyle without being slavishly devoted to his idiosyncrasies.  Some punctuation errors mar the writing, but these are relatively few.  There's also a bizarre tendency to use "it's" for "its."  I say it's bizarre because the editing is otherwise excellent, and that's a mistake I usually associate with sloppy editing.  Here, it appears to be a singular problem (in the sense of not being one of a slew of such errors, not in that it only occurs once.  To be fair though, I only saw this mistake made a few times).

As I mentioned above, there are many meta-comedy elements to this story.  For a work of parody, that's acceptable--to a degree.  But on occasion, I felt like the flow of the story was sacrificed at the alter of jokey fan references.  Name-dropping Ingram (or Eurobeat Brony Pony, for that matter) doesn't sit well with me in any but the most absurdist forms of comedy, and a high-concept Holmes parody deserves a higher caliber of humor.  There's certainly an element of YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) here--I had no problem with a joke that was based on the characters acknowledging their background music, for example--but such elements feel cheap and sloppy compared to the rest of the story.

Nevertheless, the fic is consistently funny, and those occasions where the jokes overshadow the story are few.  And the story itself is excellent, combining the broad strokes of A Study in Scarlet (as well as a few other Holmes shorts along the way) with thematic elements from Friendship is Magic.  Major plot elements are lifted from or based off of Art of the Dress and Owl's Well that Ends Well, among others, and the aesthetic of the show is lovingly preserved even in what would appear to be a very ill-fitting setting.  Even the major moral is both show-appropriate and completely in place in the context of the story--a rare feat.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

It almost physically pains me not to give this five stars--and if my ratings were based purely on how much I enjoyed the story, I would in a heartbeat.  But when I take into consideration the way that some of the meta-humor falls flat, it's hard to justify.  Add to that the elements which require some familiarity with Doyle to appreciate (it's really more of a A Study in Scarlet crossover than a MLP crossover, frankly), and I can't justify awarding the full five stars here.

Recommendation: That said, everyone should read this.  Your appreciation will be enhanced if you've read some Holmes (and if you haven't, you really should.  They aren't classics for nothing, and a collection of Doyle's shorts make for easy, light reading), but even that's not necessary to enjoy this piece.  I really can't recommend it enough, and it remains one of my favorite fanfics of all time.

And now, my review of The Hound of Ponyville:

Thoughts before reading:  While I enjoyed this story greatly when I first read it, it seemed to me that it didn't rise to the admittedly lofty standards of A Study in Rainbows.  Now I guess it's time to see if that impression holds true, and what marked the difference for me.

Zero-ish spoiler summary: After Fluttershy vanishes from Ponyville Hall amid rumors that a mythical hound has been stalking her, Rarity determines to ascertain the truth of her disappearance.

Thoughts after reading: Since most of my praise and criticisms of A Study in Rainbows apply equally well to this story, I'm going to focus on what's different.  If I could describe the above as  "A Study in Scarlet, but with ponies: a parody," then I could equally accurately say that this is " "The Hound of the Baskervilles, but with ponies: a parody."  Unlike the first story, The Hound of Ponyville does not hold so rigidly to the plot of Doyle's most famous work at the start, though it does still save the most significant changes for later in the story.  I do not consider this a particularly good or bad thing--the story still follows the general arc which quality parodies of this type generally do, after all.  My comments about language, editing, characterization, and meta-humor above all apply equally well to this story.

The major difference between the two, so far as my enjoyment was concerned, was the loss of focus in the later chapters.  I'm thinking particularly of the Hound of Ponyville itself (about whom, for the sake of the story, I'll say as little as possible).  Its role in the story once its identity is revealed at the end of chapter five has no basis in Doyle's story, which in and of itself is okay; later chapters are entitled to take dramatic liberties with the source material, after all.  But it doesn't really tie into MLP that well, either.  Not just in the sense that the Hound isn't from the show, but that the plot elements of that section don't really have any connection to FiM.  This and several other (admittedly smaller and more focused) segments of the story feel like the author just made them up for the sake of moving the story along, as their connection to either Ponies or Holmes is, from a thematic and structural standpoint, tenuous at best.  They aren't bad, in the sense of being poorly written or dull.  They just don't have the same tie-in value and linking strength which mark the rest of the story (and which are virtually omnipresent in A Study in Rainbows).

Star rating:  (what does this mean?)

Unlike the above, four feels right for this story to me.  It's an excellent piece of fanfiction, and a worthy successor to A Study in Rainbows, but a softer sense of dedication to the two franchises which make up the crossover was occasionally to its detriment.

Recommendation: I think that anyone who enjoys A Study in Rainbows shouldn't hesitate to read this next.

Next time: Simply Rarity, by Somber


  1. Ah, I've been lurking this blog for months waiting for you to get to my stories. I'm entirely thrilled to hear that you enjoyed them!

    I must agree with your criticisms, though, and unfortunately any excuses I could offer are wordy variations on 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'.

    Still, though, writing those stories significantly changed my view on writing in general and the classics in particular. I became obsessed with adaptation following this, along with atypical writings styles and pushing the limits of how far I could take the personalities of these characters while having them remain the same. I think the echoes of how much I enjoyed writing A Study In Rainbows have resonated through everything I've done since.

    I'll continue to follow this site; it encourages me to go out and read stories I've really been meaning to. Thank you for your insights, sir, I greatly appreciate them :)

    1. Thank YOU for writing the story. This wouldn't be much of a review if I didn't have some source material after all, never mind the entertainment I've derived from your stories. Thanks for taking the time to respond--I always like to hear from authors.

    2. I don't know why, by this point in my writing career, I still feel surprised and giddy every time someone says something remotely nice about something I've done. I hope the feeling never goes away :)

      And now I resume my tense wait for the next review!

    3. Hey Thanquol! I think things you've done are remotely nice!

    4. And that still gets a positive reaction ^^

  2. "dweebish"

    I have got to read this. I read all the Sherlock stories a couple of years ago. If the first fic is a nearly-five from you, I think I'll quite enjoy it. :D

  3. Ive been speed reading through a lot of these reviews so I may be missing a LOT of information but I do believe that these are based on the new BBC adaptation of Sherlock. Its set in the present day with a very sociopathic, self aware and in my opinion less grating then RDJr (I should also mention the show is FANTASTIC) and the titles seem to be based on Season1 Episode1: A Study in Pink and Season2 Episode2: The Hounds of Baskerville

    1. I've never seen the BBC adaptation! I just had my ancient hardcopy of the Collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I've been intending to see it when I get the chance though.

  4. Read through the review again a bit slower... I'm probably very be wrong, ignore me...

  5. Ive been speed reading through a lot of these reviews so I may be missing a LOT of information but I do believe that these are based on the new BBC adaptation of Sherlock. Its set in the present day with a very sociopathic, self aware and in my opinion less grating then RDJr (I should also mention the show is FANTASTIC) and the titles seem to be based on Season1 Episode1: A Study in Pink and Season2 Episode2: The Hounds of Baskerville

  6. Okay, I'm going to offer an opposing opinion (I'm going by months old memory, though, so I might get somethings wrong).

    When I read A Study in Rainbows, I personally thought it was just okay. The biggest issue for me was that it suffers like a lot of crossovers of its kind (my own abandoned Lord of the RIngs crossover included) in that the characters don't fit the roles they play (for example, I didn't buy Dash as Watson, she lacks his sensitivity, for one) so the believability level can sometimes flux around quite a bit. But I did laugh at times and in particular, I'm glad Thanqol kept the part of Rarity stating she must forget how the sun moves after learning it because that line to me describes Holmes better than no other. It also shows the difference between one who is intelligent and one who is knowledgeable.

    However, I disliked (hate wouldn't be too harsh a word, sadly) the sequel. What irked me the most was that I could not buy the fact that "both" Dash and Rarity could become obsessed with the butterfly lover Prince Blueblood. It felt against character for both (Rarity I could buy if she wasn't Holmes) and that personally annoyed me. In addition to some problems I had with the last one, existed in this one. Sorry Thanqol, but nothing is without dissenters.

    As a side note: I did read a few of Doyle's Holmes stories over the summer (but not the ones that the two are based) and quite frankly, I prefer the quirky fussbucket of a man that is Hercule Poirot to Sherlock Holmes (they're still good stories, though). It doesn't help that David Suchet is such a good actor.

    *Totally not influencing my decision in any way is the fact that multiple visitors to this blog will be lining up outside my door with baseball bats if I don't hurry up and get to my review of Simply Rarity.*

    I would personally prefer for next week Wednesday for that review but hey, you can't get everything you want. Plus I prefer hatchets buried in the ground and not in your head or mine.

    1. I make it policy to never argue with criticism. Writing is communication and if someone doesn't like something I've done then it's a failure of communication for which I am ultimately responsible. Similarly I avoid justifying or excusing myself so that I can focus on fixing what went wrong.

      I feel like my primary issue in writing the sequel was that I decided to submit it in chapters rather than waiting until I was finished and editing and reviewing it properly. That was a terrible decision, motivated by the greed of having it bumped repeatedly to the top of the page, and far more stressful than relaxing. I committed myself afterwards to never submitting a story that I hadn't A) finished entirely and B) given at least a month afterwards to think about it, review and edit. Hopefully these resolutions benefited my later stories.

    2. Very glad you said that Thanqol.

      I was feeling trapped for a while between wanting to put something, ANYTHING, out to get some feedback, and wanting to finish the whole thing first.

      In honesty, it was absolutely the fear of putting something out that stopped me at first, but months into my grand escapade, I'm really glad I haven't. Aside from a few alterations where changing a detail 3 chapters earlier has been the best fix, I just feel infinitely more comfortable thing when there's no forced impetus (even if I'm only forcing myself).

      I dread to think where I'd be now if I was pushing myself that much harder to finish!

    3. Getting feedback is essential, and it's absolutely worth having a group of friends you can show an incomplete piece to. There's a big difference between that and submitting a piece as finished to the public at large.

    4. Yeah, I have a couple of folks I talk about ideas with. Wouldn't hurt to find a few more though, but I'm not that fussed until I get closer to the end.

    5. Thanqol, you should't berate yourself. You're a good writer, as witness by your other two stories (I have criticism for them, but I also have problems for my favorite novels and movies). I'm glad you responded, though. It's always nice to get advice from skilled writers.

    6. But berating myself is what I do!

      I take writing very seriously and constantly reflect and analyse. I'm my own harshest critic. I'm pretty good by this point, though, at stopping concerns about my writing from translating into concerns about myself. I can see clearly that I've improved with time and I'm determined to keep on doing so :)