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Rarity time! Following close on the heels of Carousel, we have another origin-type story. Find my review of Somber's Simply Rarity after the break.
Thoughts before reading: This is one of the more popular and well-known fanfics out there. At the very least, it's one of the stories of which my review has been most anticipated, if the number of comments/e-mails I've gotten asking about it are any indication. It's written in journal format, which has a lot of potential pitfalls, but there have been some wonderful stories written in that style in the past. Just like any writing style, there's always a way to do it right.
When I first read this story, I was underwhelmed. Why? I don't remember, honestly. It's been a long time, and obviously this one didn't really stand out to me after reading. Might as well dive in and see what I think after closer examination.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Rarity gives Twilight a birthday present that some of her friends think is too cheap, Rarity's reaction to their insults drives Twilight to wonder why their barbs struck so deep. The answer lies in Rarity's past, and the troubled path which brought her to the present.
Thoughts after reading: One of the major complaints about this story seems to be that Applejack is portrayed as a massive jerk in it. While I won't argue that point, it didn't really bother me. Applejack can be kind of a jerk in the show, after all--all of the ponies can be. Ribbing a friend for getting a chintzy gift seems entirely within the realm of believability to me, even if it is still a dick move.
No, my problems with this story didn't start until the exposition was out of the way and the diary began. The major problem was the use of the format itself. One of the reasons that writing a good diary story is so difficult is because it has all the pitfalls of first-person narrative, with the additional restriction that not even the focus character's inner thoughts can be directly revealed. Even they are working through a medium, and while a character keeping a journal can reasonably speak about all sorts of personal or embarrassing things which they might not be willing to address in real life, the fact that the audience's insights must still be limited to whatever they might actually chose to write down makes it hard for an author to show some things without sacrificing believability.
While there was no moment when reading that I threw up my hands in the air and exclaimed "Now that's just stupid," at a number of points I was unconvinced by the format. For example, the entries which dealt with the conclusions of the Rarity's father and Unique segments respectively were utterly unbelievable to me. They were very powerful and touching, but I didn't believe for one minute that anyone, anywhere, ever kept a diary that looked anything like that. When an author has to sacrifice the believability of their central conceit for the sake of the overall story, then to me that means that either they shouldn't have gone with that format, or they should have reconsidered the story arc in question.
Similar problems occur when Somber wants to either make something clear to the reader that wouldn't be obvious from Rarity's normal writing, or wants to show that Rarity is aware of something which she wouldn't write in her diary normally. This story is full of Freudian slips where Rarity accidentally tells more than she intends too. Some are struck through (though never scratched out completely, conveniently), while others are left to stand unmarked, presumably unnoticed even by their author. Rarity that is, not Somber--I'll assume he knew what he was doing. Having a couple of these in a story is one thing: it falls under the purview of dramatic coincidence, i.e. something that may not be the most likely thing in the world, but helps move the story along and doesn't strain believability too much. But when a story is packed full of accidental revelations like this, the collective weight of all the "slip-ups" starts to rankle. At a certain point, the author either needs to find a better way to convey this information to the reader, or needs to re-examine how much of it is really necessary in the first place.
Simply Rarity deals with a number of adult themes, including poverty, child welfare, and social responsibility. For the most part, I thought these were well handled. Although this story has little in common with the show in terms of tone of setting, it still treats with the themes of generosity and responsibility in a simple (though certainly not simplistic) manner. That said, I felt there was one major mistake from a tone standpoint: an entry which seems to imply that Rarity (as a filly) had been living with a pedophile, and may have been molested, made me literally spit out my tea in shock when I first read it (my keyboard still seems to be working despite some liquid damage, so I guess that's what's important). It was handled so casually that I couldn't fathom why the author chose to include it--it added nothing to the story that couldn't have been easily gained through less disturbing means, and felt incredibly inappropriate to me. I know it dragged me right out of the story, and I had trouble getting back into it after that.
Other than some inconsistency on the capitalization of unicorn and pegasus, and a few punctuation errors entering quotes, the piece was well edited. In the diary, I thought Somber did a great job of capturing Rarity's voice, and of altering that voice just enough to reflect her straits during any given entry while still holding the essential inflection of the character.
The end of the story was touching. The entire piece is essentially an examination of what it means to be generous, and different expressions of this core concept appear throughout Rarity's journal. By the conclusion, Rarity's own ideas of generosity are clear, and her expressions thereof are given new relevance. One of the marks of a powerful story is that it enhances one's ability to empathize with a character, and that was certainly the case here.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
This is a powerful tale, but there are some significant flaws in its execution. The journal format is frequently a hindrance to the story Somber's trying to tell, excessive dramatic coincidences strain credulity, and casual (and thematically unnecessary) suggestions of child molestation are about as mood-breaking as anything I can imagine.
Recommendation: I can certainly understand why this is a popular fic, even for its flaws. The arc of the story is strong and well-considered, and it does a wonderful job of getting the reader to think about what generosity really is. For anyone who can accept the weaknesses of the format and structure, the underlying story is one you'll find rewarding.
Next time: Sweet Apple Capers, by The RPGenius