Friday, March 23, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 49: Shaman

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

Zecora time!  Honestly, I didn't like her character all that much when she was introduced; speaking in couplets is just too gimmicky for me.  But that's neither here nor there.  What's here is this bit you're just now reading, and what's there is the review proper.  After the break, TheMechanic's Shaman.

Impressions before reading:  Since I just mentioned that I've always found Zecorah's speech patterns affectatious, it's worth noting that I've heard that this story has one of the better explanations for why she talks that way.  Other than that, there's not a lot to go on here; all the author's description tells me is that this is an origin story, and he hasn't even included any additional tags.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Zecora reminisces about her youth, spent among her native tribe, and the duties by which she remains bound to her village.

Thoughts after reading:  One of the worse ways to introduce a viewpoint character's physical description is to have them look in a mirror and describe what they see.  The reason this doesn't really work is because it's contrived; we all look in mirrors all the time, but usually we're just seeing if our hair's straight, if there's something in our teeth, etc.  Few and far between are the occasions where I've stood in front of one and run down a checklist of my defining physical characteristics, and to have a character do so for the sake of showing the reader what they look like is just lazy storytelling.

Shaman reads like a character backstory version of this pitfall.  The first few paragraphs tell us that Zecora is preparing to be contacted by her home tribe, so she's sitting in front of a ceremonial fire waiting for them to complete a ceremony that will summon her spirit.  While she's waiting, she decides to review the highlights of her entire pre-Ponyville life, in chronological order.  This is hardly the worst thing in the world, from a writing standpoint (it's perfectly reasonable that she'd be thinking about her home and her childhood under the circumstances, after all.  What I object to is the comprehensiveness and narrative cohesion of her thoughts--they don't read like idle memories, but rather like someone who's speaking to an audience from a prepared script), but it's contrived and kind of dull.

The story itself has some interesting elements, but many of these are never satisfactorily fleshed out.  The spirits with whom the tribe communes appear to be an intriguing mix of western European fey (mischievous and inscrutable, both benevolent and malignant in turn, bound by strange and unexplained rules) and tribal deities (representatives of specific thoughts/objects/phenomena, able to hear and grant prayers in exchange for gifts, prayer, or sacrifices).  A lot could have been done with these entities, but they are left tragically underdeveloped.

As for the rhyming... well, I think I was probably oversold on it.  This story gives a perfectly adequate explanation for why Zecora talks the way she does, don't get me wrong.  But it wasn't like the heavens parted and my eyes were suddenly opened to some great and unspeakable truth, which was more or less the impression I'd gotten from a couple of recommendations I've read; my reaction was more along the lines of, "Well, I guess that's as good an explanation as any."  That's not a story criticism--as I said, the reason given here works just fine for me.  I just want to make sure readers don't go in expecting more than there going to get.  Being let down by something good because one was expecting something great is no fun at all.

There's a small spoiler I want to mention.  I thought about letting it slide, but it kind of bugged me, so here it is:

That aside, I thought the story was very interesting as a glimpse into Zecora's life, but it didn't really stand as a story in its own right.  In the end, there's no real conflict--at least, none in the sense of "a driving force which propels the story forward."  There's just Zecora, thinking about all the stuff she's done over the years.  And while some of that stuff is interesting in its own right, the story as a whole ends up being dull despite its brevity.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

In the end, the execution didn't impress me, and the most interesting parts of the story don't receive the development they need to really shine.  Still, Shaman is strong at a conceptual level; the idea of Zecora's backstory as presented is fundamentally intriguing.

Recommendation:  If origin stories are your thing, this one has some fascinating elements to it.  But as an actual story, it doesn't hold up to the other works I've reviewed.  I'd recommend this to people interested in zebra culture generally and Zecora specifically, but not for anyone just looking for a good read.

Next time:  Moonlight Over Midnight, by EsperDerek


  1. I have a problem with Zecora's speech style myself, but it's not because it's gimmicky but instead because it calls to mind a lot old comics from the early half of the 20th century where Africans were given rhythmic names (Foola Zoola) or speech patterns (one comic I remember had a cannibal ended names with -ay or something) to make seem more primitive or comical. It doesn't help that I think Zecora's design is little overdone (thank goodness they didn't shove a bone through her nose). I don't find her as offensive (if at all) as the one's I mentioned because she has some nice traits, but sometimes she toes the line for me.

    As for Shaman, these are my thoughts.

    "Dry. That’s the word that comes to mind when I read this. Altogether, it reads like a kid’s history book that tries to teach kid’s history by treating the history like some fictionalized story. You know edutainment. Its writing style on the “tell” side throughout, which is my biggest problem and unfortunately, it drags down the other parts. The narrative (or lack of one) is problematic because there’s no real strong, overarching conflict of any sort in it. Yes, it’s about how Zecora became a shaman but everything feels so loose and unconnected. Instead, it’s really a character piece, which isn’t bad in and of itself but the writing brings it down through its telly style, so I couldn’t care about Zecora because she felt so distant. There is some world building here but I like world building when it enhances the characters and the plot, here it really doesn’t it. It’s just a few quick bits and that’s it. A shame too, because there were some interesting parts (like why she talks in rhymes) in the work. So from the perspective of style and substance, it fails in my book.

    If the entire story was told from Zecora’s mouth (I admit this would be incredibly difficult, for this tale in particular, but not impossible if you’ve read “The Most Dangerous Dish”) or if was more like a children’s story (and had illustrations), I could accept the amount of “telly” writing, and might find it more enjoyable. Or perhaps, this needed to be broken up into a few separate parts (or chapters) and then expanded upon (and this is coming from a guy who values brevity a lot). But it’s not any of those, so I have to be put this bluntly: while I never got irritated (just bored), this piece is something I would rate as bad."

    So yeah, not much disagreement from my end, Chris.

    *Next Time: Moonlight Over Midnight, by EsperDerek*

    I have to question if it makes sense to do this one next, or at least before "Shades of Midnight", which is part of the same storyline and a six star. After all, "Shades of Midnight" was released first and the only reason it's further down the pipeline is because some side-stories were added later. At the end of the day, it's still your decision Chris.

    1. On 'Moonlight Over Midnight': I guess us lowly readers will just have to go read the whole arc so nothing gets spoiled!

  2. Ugh. Thanks for saving me from this story; I skipped it at the time, and what was in the spoiler, to me, has absolutely zero place in a story about little ponies... or zebras, for that matter.

    This fandom. Sheesh.

    1. I dunno. While I don't really see the point of sexy time in what is basically My Little Pony fanfiction*, it's a little odd to see someone condemn all clopfic.

      And I'd have to argue that lewd jokes can be good fun. Especially the type that might fly over some of the characters' heads.

      Of course, if it's the really strange and creepy presentation of the lewd joke and implied sex that you're objecting to, I have no issues there. That was pretty out-of-the-blue. "Ha ha ha! I am a magical trickster spirit so I'm going to make you give your boyfriend viagra! THIS MAKES SENSE."

      * Okay, fine. I actually enjoy the bizarre and
      (hopefully) ironic stuff. It's always fun to read something and then wonder if someone out there actually has a very, very specific fetish for this sort of thing. i.e. What would possess someone to write Tom and Sir Lintsalot vore, or a story where Pinkie Pie gets it on with Hugh Laurie.

    2. Clopfic is a big part of what made me stop being a brony and just start being a "guy who watches the show." So from MY perspective, it's weird to see someone NOT condemn all clopfic.

  3. Mech's a friend, but I never did like this story very much. I mostly found the parts dealing with Zecora's love life uninspiring, to say the least.

    However, the reason why she speaks in rhyme has always stuck with me, such that I have to keep reminding myself, "This is not my idea" when I start explaining that she speaks in rhyme for the spirits. It's a very powerful and excellent explanation.