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All I can think of when I see that cover art is Michael Jackson. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; I've always thought Black or White was one of his better songs, despite its cheesiness. Heck, I like it because it's so cheesy, and in any case that face-morphing thing was pretty cool twenty years ago.
After the break, my review of Melionos's Black and White.
Impressions before reading: I read this when it was first posted, and didn't much care for it. Although it's been a while, I remember feeling unmoved by the plight of the principal character, and I was unimpressed by the musical descriptions. Well, let's see if a second read-through dispels any of my reservations.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Out of the blue, Lyra receives a gift from her old friend Octavia: a book, written by her. When Lyra begins to read, she discovers that the story it tells encompasses her friend's life, loves, and yes, Lyra herself.
Thoughts after reading: Every once in a while, an author does such a good job representing something negative that it's no longer enjoyable to read. In a strange way I suppose this is a complement, but that was my exact reaction to Octavia in this story. It's clear that Octavia is emotionally stunted, and the author does an excellent job of displaying this through her writing, but in the end he does too good a job for me: the self-depreciation carefully designed to extract compliments, the victim complex, and the pseudo-philosophical "revelations" with which she fills her book are all perfectly in-character for the pony Melianos has created, but that doesn't make them any less maddening to read. And since most of the story is a transcription of Octavia's book, I'd have to say that I found most of the story painful and unpleasant. Likewise, her "I'll put on a brave face and soldier on (but not really, let me unload my emotional baggage on you)" non-stalking makes sense through the lens of her character, but the fact that I don't find her actions character-breaking doesn't mean that she's relatable. Instead, she evokes a strange mix of pity and disgust from me--I hope she gets the help she needs, but that doesn't make her any more pleasant to be around/read about.
As for my remembered problems with the musical descriptions, they weren't really noteworthy, in either a positive or negative way. No, I suspect what I reacted against when I first encountered this story were Octavia's musings on the subject, with which I take near-universal exception. When explaining why she chose to write her book, Octavia says, "I did think about composing a song to tell this story, but music can be so vague sometimes, and I don’t want to write a musical or opera, or even give it lyrics. Music should be able to work its magic without those, if you ask me, and like I said, my talent is playing, not composing. Music can only convey vague—if powerful—emotions, but literature can be far more specific." This is the sort of proclamatory pablum I associate with high-school instrumentalists, not professional musicians and composers. Of course, this ties back into what I said above--Octavia's clearly still at the same developmental level as those high-school instrumentalists, so it's not like it's unreasonable for her to make sweeping statements of (at best) debatable veracity, even on the subject which she should nominally be best-versed in--but as I also said above, that doesn't really make it more enjoyable to read.
Also on the subject of Octavia's book, I felt like it was a real weak point from a narrative format. The fact is, it wasn't a very interesting book in-universe. Replace all the ponies with humans, make Octavia a real-life marginally-famous instrumentalist and everyone else total unknowns, and I can't possibly imagine that it would sell in the real world. On top of that, the book is transcribed in its entirety and comes out to about 17 pages, single-sided. I wasn't expecting Octavia to write the next War and Peace, but did she really publish a story that's probably less than a dozen printed pages long? As a narrative tool, the book left me unimpressed.
On the plus side, the writing and editing on Black and White were both excellent. Melianos does a great job of capturing the self-absorbed yet self-conscious dichotomy that defines the attitudes of many young teens, and the narration outside of Octavia's book is crisp and clear. As I've basically said elsewhere, Octavia's characterization is excellent in the sense that it's believable and consistent, and Lyra (the only other character who gets much fleshing out) is treated equally well in this regard.
The story does make a few assumptions that I think are out of place. First, it explains away the rampant lesbianism on which it (along with most shipping stories in this fandom) relies by stating that the male-female ratio in Equestria is 12-1. I've seen similar explanations in a number of stories, but I think I've only seen one or two that made it work, in both a social and biological sense. Otherwise, saying "Well, there aren't a lot of male ponies in the show, so those numbers must extrapolate over the entire planet!" seems like a massive cop-out to me. Melianos also makes the bizarre assumption that the musical numbers from the show are a literally accurate; that is to say, when we see Winter Wrap-Up or Becoming Popular or whatever, that what we are seeing is not a storytelling convention, but that the ponies really are all singing and dancing along to their background music. I say this is bizarre because it would seem to render musicians obsolete, as professionals if not as hobbyists. When free, pre-choreographed, professionally orchestrated music is an intrinsic part of daily life, why would anyone pay money to go see a professional performer?
Finally, I want to note that at the end of the story, the author plays a little guessing-game with the reader, telling us a bit about how the real-life people he apparently based the story on would react if they read it. I found it grating and self-indulgent, since neither I nor most other readers will have any idea who these people are or why I should care if they would recognize their ponified selves, but that's neither here nor there. I don't really judge author's notes, though I know some people are put off by them; personally, I find they're easy enough to skip if I'm not in the mood, and occasionally interesting if I am.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
In the end, I think this is a fairly well-executed story. Unfortunately, I also can't help but feel that it isn't a very good story--its protagonist is self-absorbed, determined to cut off her nose to spite her face, and generally makes it impossible to enjoy spending time in her presence. Since reading this story is an exercise in getting to know her, I can't say I enjoyed it.
Recommendation: The portion of the fandom that sees Octavia through rose-tinted glasses will no doubt enjoy this, as they'll be able to gloss over her more irritating qualities. And as a character study in stunted interpersonal growth and emotional maturity, it's really quite insightful. But for general readers, I would not recommend this.
Next time: Shades of Midnight, by Phoe