Wednesday, March 28, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 51: Two Ponies

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

I don't really have anything noteworthy to say up here.  Um... I just had a couple of maple sugar-flavored cookies?  They were really good.

Below the break, my review of Twilight Snarkle's Two Ponies.

Impressions before reading:  There aren't a lot of 6-star stories starring non-canon (otherwise known as OC, "original character") ponies, at least compared to the number that exist in pony fanfiction.  I'm not entirely sure why; I know that some people don't like OC ponies in principle, though to my mind writing about a background pony is essentially the same as creating one from scratch.  Either way, it appears we have an OC-centric story on our hands here.

Myself?  I have no feelings either way, honestly.  There are plenty of stories with terrible OCs, and the dreaded yet nebulously defined Mary-Sue almost always takes the form of an OC, but there's nothing about non-canon characters that inherently sets off any warning bells for me.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The life of Smudge, and the ponies he knew and loved, presented as a short set of vignettes spanning decades and generations.

Thoughts after reading:  Let's start with the pedantic: "Smudge followed a blue jay, curious as to its presence. He had thought they would have all flown south by now."  Blue jays don't migrate.  Well, technically some do, but not all--there is no part of the jay's range that the species as a whole abandons during the winter months.  A pretty insignificant slip-up to be sure, but hey; I call 'em like I see 'em.

Leaving that aside, the technical aspects of this piece are very well done.  The editing is essentially flawless, and the sluggish yet suggestive pacing of the sentences meshes well with what is, in the end, a very "tell-y" story.  Although the piece does bog down slightly in places where this languid pacing is combined with an overuse of past perfect tense (I say overuse not because the tense is used incorrectly, but there were places where a little rewording could have avoided the issue.  The grammar on this piece was excellent, on the whole), the writing style meshes well with the story being told.

And that story is beautiful, if complex and fleeting.  In the end, it is a story about love.  Yet unlike far too many shipfics, Twilight Snarkle doesn't reduce or simplify what "love" is.  Instead, the story offers an all too brief look at what it means to love another pony as a family member, as a friend, as a confidant, and more.  In particular, I found Smudge's first encounters with Copper Key (another OC--all of the major characters in the story are, though the two Princesses eventually make an appearance as well, and various canon ponies are mentioned in passing) touching; the quiet, understated, and perhaps even unrecognized feelings which pass between them evoke the same feelings as Frost's The Pasture.  This is not a romance (and it's certainly not a shipfic), but in brief space it forges powerful emotional bonds between its characters, which are all the stronger for feeling totally authentic.

And beyond that, as one could no doubt guess from the tags, this story deals with loss, in various forms and for various ponies.  Again, I was surprised by how genuine these reactions felt, doubly so because some of them were so extreme.  The way in which a person/pony can grow in one's mind, becoming an unattainable ideal, is handled well here.  Never taken to unbelievable or eye-rolling extremes, the way in which various characters build each other up in their own heads rings entirely true to me.

For the most part, the writing was good.  The author's style evokes classic fairy-tales, though the plot's pacing takes a more modern form.  Descriptions were at times a real weak point; virtually every major character received at least an entire paragraph devoted to describing their physical appearance in overly-effusive terms. Other than this, however, I thought there was wonderful synergy between words and story--an important part of storytelling to my mind, and one that's often overlooked.

The story spans multiple generations, and shifts its focus from pony to pony as it does.  Between them, they paint a portrait not just of Smudge, the nominal central figure in all this, but of what love and longing can do to a person, both good and bad.  This is a complex issue, and for the most part the author avoids reductivism and gives this central concept the openness it needs.  Celestia does dive into heavy-handed polemics at one point, but by in large the story is content to simply show the reader what answers each pony arrives at for themselves, and to let them draw their own conclusions.  One thing that many great stories have in common is that they give the reader room to fill in their own interpretations, of motive and of right and wrong if not of actual events.  Although it does so at times imperfectly (again, the royal sisters are a bit too cudgel-like in their deeds and declarations for such a nuanced subject), this story accomplishes precisely that.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Despite its brevity, this is one of the most nuanced pieces I've reviewed to date.  Its characterizations are poignant and believable, and despite some relatively minor flaws in pacing and execution, the story as a whole is of undeniable quality.

Recommendation:  This is an excellent story for anyone who likes having to think a little.  It left me wanting to know more about the protagonists, but never in a cheap or lazy way: I was genuinely invested in the characters, and the way their actions played out over the years and decades.

Next time:  Black and White, by Melianos


  1. You know, I think this was one of the first fics I ever pre-read. I've always found it touching (I had no idea there were going to be more chapters after it went up) in ways that few fics are.

    I don't get the OC hate either. I mean, yes, most writers who make OCs make overpowered Mary Sues and whatnot, that's just Sturgeon's Law. But it's not the OCs' fault, it's the fault of the writer, and we at least don't let those sorts of stories onto Equestria Daily. The readership in this fandom, or at least on EQD, is very unforgiving and unwilling to give writers the benefit of a doubt, at least anymore. This would have been a 4.2 max if it was posted on Equestria Daily today, mark my words.

    1. Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous, and it leaves me to wonder what the rating for my in-progress story on EqD should really be, instead of a 4.2 (just fyi it has the shipping tag). But oh well, lol. Other stories have been hit much, much worse.

    2. I take the supposed bias against OC fics as a challenge. I don't think people automatically hate OCs; the issue is just that when the show you're writing for has such good canon characters to begin with, you have to really bring it as a writer to meet that standard with your original ones. In any case, the ratings on my OC story is much better than the ones I used canon characters for, so *shrug*.

      Also, can't wait for Black And White. Think that was another one I approved, if I remember correctly.

    3. Honestly, my guess would be that reading a fic based around OC's takes more effort on the part of both the author and the reader.

      When you have a fanbase that contains people who will star-bomb shipping, or non-shipping, or their least favourite character, or anything not posted on a Thursday and containing muffins...'nuff said. OC's give an author a lot of flexibility, but cannon toons allow you to get the hell on with the plot.

      I don't think I ever want to write anything main-6-ish ever again.

    4. It seems this perception of OC hate is a (relatively) new thing, perhaps coinciding with the shipping star-bombing.

      My own ongoing fic (first posted in September) is all about OCs and the only comment I've ever got complaining about that is "Anyway the story's premise sounded interesting and while it is well written, it's a little too far away from the source material for my taste."

      And of course Antipodes and Fallout: Equestria were pretty popular back in the day (and to varying degrees still are).

      >This would have been a 4.2 max if it was posted on Equestria Daily today, mark my words.
      It's not just shipping, is it? As the community continues to grow, it seems we're continuing to get more and more people who rate fics on superficial qualities. It's quite sad, but I guess there's not much you can do about it.

    5. On the other hand, we also get more reactions based on higher standards. It's been noted by prereaders that Past Sins, had it been submitted today, would have been bounced for error-checking, for instance.

      The star system is flawed, of that there's no doubt. What I've heard is that it's simply too much of a risk, either financially or technically, to move to a new system.

    6. I have nothing against OC's and quite frankly, I maintain they have more "potential" to be interesting than backgrounds characters who are stuck in fanon formulas (which is probably why people like the latter in the first place, because of that familiarity).

      That said, there are few things that frustrate me as much as a reader than when writers drop in like 6 OC's in one chapter and do nothing to distinguish them (or doing it in a lackluster manner) beyond name and description. If I have to say the phrase "Who is this character again" while reading, then there's a problem. "Little Nells" and self-inserts irritate me, bland characters bore me, but all of them commit the cardinal sin of wasting my time.

      *This would have been a 4.2 max if it was posted on Equestria Daily today, mark my words.*

      More reasons why I stopped using the star system to choose stories to read and why I never used it to rate them to begin with.

      As for "Two Ponies", I'll read once I finish some other fanficts in the "to read" list.

    7. Perhaps I am a little bias, but I don't really see OC stigmata manifest itself in low ratings (at least on a site like EqD). What I do see, however, is the dramatic difference in views between OC stories and those focused on canon personalities. I don't know if there is a bad feeling toward well-written OC stories, but there definitely is a feeling of disinterest.

      Then again, as I person who has so far written exclusively OC-centric stories, maybe I am just biased!

  2. Gah, I don't know why I read sad fics at work. It never ends well for me.

  3. Oh, Black and White. I'm actually the one who emailed the blogponies to tell them when it got the 4.9 rating a month ago.

  4. WHAT? Two Ponies is about more than two ponies? I am outraged! I'm so outraged, that I'm reading this right now because it sounds good and I think I'll like it!

  5. Thank you, Chris, for your more-than-fair review, and surprisingly high rating. I agree that Celestia was a bit heavy-hoofed in her Aesop, and if I re-edit the story, that's one of the first things I'm smoothing over.
    Everyone else, thank you for your kind words. It's nice to know this old pony's got a few readers.

    1. Glad you approve of the review. One of the nice things about having a reputation for being harsh: whenever you say something nice, everyone's pleasantly surprised!