Monday, April 2, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 53: Shades of Midnight / Cries in the Autumn Wind / Dreams of Midnight

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

And now, a continuation of the Out in the Cold story milieu!  This time, it's a set of several side-stories by various authors, all part of the same continuity as the original story.  Warning: this review contains major spoilers for Out in the Cold.  You may want to read it first, or failing that, read my review of it and decide if it's something you mind having spoiled for you.

Below the break, my reviews of Shades of Midnight, by Phoe, Cries in the Autumn Wind, by Sunset Rose, and Dreams of Midnight, by EsperDerek.

Impressions before reading:  Okay, so that "bonus chapter" of Out in the Cold that I could barely bring myself to talk about? Yeah, these are all based on it, apparently.  Trixie and Twilight have a baby (if you skipped that bit before, the Cliff's Notes version is that Luna, Trixie, and Twilight had a magical three-way which ended with Trixie pregnant with Twilight's foal.  So, yeah)  and now here's some stories about that kid!  I'll be the first to admit that I'm having a lot of trouble buying into the premise; it just seems like such a silly, unnecessary idea to me (what, couldn't they have just adopted?).  That said, I'll do my best to give these a fair shake.

NOTE: The top review is only of Shades of Midnight.  The other stories are done separately below.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  On her first night away from home, Midnight finds a book which her parents smuggled into her luggage, which reminds her of all the highlights of her life.

Thoughts after reading:  There are many popular things which I don't personally appreciate: professional basketball, the Twilight books, Youtube poops, Adam Sandler, etc.  But although I personally may not enjoy any of these things, I can at least understand why they're so popular: my dislike doesn't preclude comprehension.  More rarely, I find something which I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal of.  Shades of Midnight falls into this latter category.

It's essentially a series of highlights from the life of Twilight and Trixie's daughter; stuff like birthdays, getting in trouble at school, "the talk," and so on.  This doesn't make for a particularly interesting story, in that there's no consistent conflict or message which binds the story together; the only common theme seems to be "stuff that happened to Midnight."  And it's not really much of a character study, since it doesn't shed much light on Midnight's personality or character qualities.  The narrative skips from year to year, dragging in different facets of her attitudes from different stages of her youth (when she was young, she didn't have a sense of physical permanence!  When she was a teen, she was moody!), but at the end of the story I didn't have a much clearer picture of what Midnight was actually like than when I began.

Most of the story is told in present tense.  This was, I think, not the best idea under the circumstances.  I doubt I'd have minded much if the story had been told from a consistent narrative viewpoint, since then it would have (at least in theory) served to add to the sense that these were a specific pony's memories.  But since the narration dips into various ponies' heads, sometimes several in the same paragraph, I found the tense choice jarring at times.  Other than that, the piece was well-written in a technical sense.

But grammatical competence isn't enough to justify this story for me.  I just don't get any of this.  What's the appeal?  As far as I can tell, it's basically a laundry list of stuff that happened to a character who's nearly as blank a slate at the end of the story as she is at the beginning.  How am I supposed to summon any empathy in such a situation?  The few times I had a significant reaction to something in the story, it was usually a negative one because I felt Phoe made a poor choice in including something.  For example, there's one flashback where Trixie completely dominates a rampaging Ursa, never mind that even Twilight supposedly doesn't have the magical ability to overcome one in an actual throw down.  Or the whole scene where Trixie and Twilight explain to Midnight how she was conceived, which was just uncomfortable to read (though perhaps not everyone will feel the same way; in the last decade or so, it seems that awkwardness and comedy have become conflated.  Personally, I just feel bad watching people suffer through awkward situations, but I know a lot of folks find that sort of thing funny, even without any punchline other than "now everyone's miserable").

If this were a story about, say, Twilight in her first year at school, I'd get it.  It still wouldn't be a particularly interesting story from a narrative standpoint, but I'd at least see why people would want to read it.  But absent any sense of empathy, this story ended up being a lot like sitting through a stranger's slideshow of their vacation: you're watching someone do stuff, but you lack the context to care.  And I regret to say that at no point in this story was my interest aroused.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

I feel like maybe I should recuse myself from rating this, because I really don't comprehend the appeal of this story at all.  Is it just that people really love Twixie, and rated it up because of that?  Was there some expansion of Midnight as a character prior to this story that I missed that might give me a little more context to care about the protagonist?  I really don't understand.  But even in the latter case, I think it's not too much to ask a story to stand on its own, and this one simply doesn't.

Recommendation:  I just don't know who would enjoy reading this.  I'm sure there must be some demographic to whom it would appeal, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you whom.  That said, I can't recommend this to anyone.

Cries in the Autumn Wind:

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The foalhood of Autumn Dancer, a unicorn living with her parents in Ponyville.

Thoughts after reading:  Sadly, this description of the protagonist is fairly representative of the technical quality of the piece: "Autumn Dancer was a young unicorn who had the dreams of one day becoming a great magician. She long been able to use simple spells like lifting light objects and opening doors. Her dexterity with lifting spells had been getting better as of late, so she was one of the few fillies who could write using magic at her age, and especially impressive coming from a unicorn who's father was an earth pony."  But even if one leaves aside the missing/incorrect words, the incorrect punctuation, and the other grammar errors which dot this fic, it isn't a terribly good story.

Reading it felt a bit like watching the prequel to a movie I hadn't seen.  It was obvious where things were going from the start, and the story was mostly about trying to fill in enough backstory and explanation to justify its own existence.  Long before the first of the two chapters ended, I already knew what was going to happen to Autumn and her parents; the only question was how and when.

Which, by itself, wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for a story.  Any sort of origin story for any character faces the same hurdles, after all.  If one writes a story about Applejack's fillyhood, then any reader will already know that by the time the "present day" rolls around, she'll be living at Sweet Apple Acres with her brother, sister, and grandmother.  The problem here is that that "present" doesn't exist, because the character being introduced doesn't exist in either the show or the prior stories from this set.  An unabashed origin story for a character the audience has never met is a tough sell.

And unfortunately, this story wasn't sold very well.  Significant plot holes and logical flaws mar the story, especially the climax halfway through the second chapter (I hate to admit this, because I fear I'll sound callous and/or unfair to the author, but I couldn't help laughing through most of that section of the story.  So little of it made sense as anything but a plot device, and everything was so overwrought).  Combine this with a fairly uninteresting character (unlike Midnight in Shades of Midnight, I at least got a sense of Autumn's personality.  But sadly, this story is too busy hitting all the necessary notes to set up its inevitable conclusion to do much with her as a character), and the story just isn't enjoyable to read.

I suppose I should clarify why I call this an origin story: the entire thing is a setup to introduce Autumn's character (for what?  I don't know.  Presumably one of the subsequent stories).  Twilight, Trixie, and Midnight figure into the story only tangentially until the very end.  So really, this isn't a story about them at all (at least, it needn't have been; they could easily have been replaced with any family), but about Autumn's background.  Perhaps someday I'll find out what she did to deserve her own origin story, but for now I haven't a clue.  And as an introduction to her, this leaves a lot to be desired.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

This just wasn't very good, on a technical or conceptual level.  In terms of quality, it compares favorably to most RPG'ers OC backgrounds, but as a story, it simply doesn't stand up.

Recommendation:  I do not recommend this story to anyone.

Dreams of Midnight:

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Midnight becomes mysteriously ill only a few months after her birth, Twilight and Trixie are at a loss.  The situation quickly proves more serious than they at first realized, and with Luna's help they must try to save their daughter.

Thoughts after reading:  It's hard to speak about this story individually, since so much of it is predicated on Out in the Cold.  As such, it's not really fair to talk about things like Midnight's conception, or Twilight and Trixie being in a relationship in the first place, because those things are assumed right from the start based on the previous story.

That said, I found Dreams of Midnight to be very solid thematically.  Leaving aside questions of the premise, the story dives right into an eminently relatable situation: a sick infant.  What's more terrifying than a seriously ill baby, too young yet to tell you what's wrong, and obviously in pain?  The sense of responsibility and helplessness can be debilitating, and I thought that was portrayed well here.

Characterization was excellent, again allowing for the fact that all the previous stories in this milieu must be taken as givens.  Trixie comes across as very self-absorbed despite her obvious growth as a character from the first chapter of Out in the Cold; honestly, I think her handling here was one of the more nuanced ones which this fandom has produced.  By focusing on her tendency to place herself at the center of every situation and responding to the needs of others primary based on how they will impact her, I think her character is made much more interesting than interpretations that spotlight her braggadocio, her casual (verbal) cruelty, or her desire to prove herself as her primary flaw.  As such (and given the universality of her plight), I found Trixie very relatable in this story; although there were some overdone moments towards the climax, my empathy was never totally shattered.  Twilight and Luna both make less praiseworthy showings, but are perfectly suitable nonetheless.

That said, I think this story could have been significantly shorter.  Almost everything after the climactic scene in the Everfree Forest could have been cut or drastically reduced, which by itself would reduce the length of the fic by at least a fifth (I had originally written "by at least 20%," but I was afraid you'd all think I was going for a lame Dash joke).  Once the primary conflict (Midnight's illness) has been addressed, there's not much need to keep following Celestia and Luna around.  Normally I prefer a long denouement to a too-abrupt conclusion, but in this case I feel like the story extended so far past its main conflict that it lost focus.

The writing quality on the piece is similar to the last chapter of Out in the Cold; unexceptional, and still marred by the occasional missed word or incorrect punctuation, but perfectly readable.  The workmanlike execution was not terribly noteworthy, and while that's hardly a ringing endorsement, it's a marked improvement from the author's earlier writing.  Credit where credit is due: EsperDereck's writing has improved with every chapter of his that I've read so far, and if I'm not judging the stories I review based on authorial growth, then that still doesn't mean that I'm not glad to see a writer improving his craft.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

It's true that there are some things about this story that really bugged me.  But most of them are holdovers from previously-written stories, and thus beyond the purview of this fic to alter.  Taken on its own (an impossible task in reality, but one I'm prepared to attempt nevertheless), this story is actually quite solid, with a powerful and relatable premise, above-average characterization, and adequate execution.

Recommendation:  This is not a story I can recommend independent of its predecessor.  That said, if you read Out in the Cold and enjoyed it at least enough to see it through to the end, this provides more action based on the same premise, and by most measures is the superior fic.  While I can't recommend Shades of Midnight or Cries in the Autumn Wind even to fans of the original, Dreams of Midnight is definitely one that's worth a look.

Next time:  Half the Day is Night, by AugieDog


  1. Well, this explains why Max didn't add these stories to the "Out in the Cold" pdf.

  2. "dragging in different faucets of her attitudes"

    Like... the hot water faucet and the cold water faucet? *ducks*

    I assume you meant facets, but then again, I can see that kind of working. A warm, bubbly personality as a foal, cold and standoffish as a teen.

    I'm actually mildly surprised that I didn't like any of these stories originally, given that I enjoyed the original. I suppose there's a first time for everything. Now, on to you wrecking the rest of my beloved early fandom favorites : P

  3. I have a Pavlovian, kneejerk reaction to Midnight's picture. It isn't a positive one; I never even read the stories, though I seem to recall taking a stab at Dreams of Midnight and not getting past the first page. Just knowing her background, she struck me as a symbol of the strange places that fanfiction goes as a matter of course where I don't care to venture.

  4. "If this were a story about, say, Twilight in her first year at school, I'd get it. It still wouldn't be a particularly interesting story from a narrative standpoint, but I'd at least see why people would want to read it."

    O snap! XD

    1. I feel like I'm missing a reference.

    2. Sessalisk is the author of "Darkest Before Dawn", the only fic about Twilight's early school years.

    3. And it's a 'particularly interesting story from a narrative standpoint'!

    4. I suppose I should clarify: I meant that this specific story still wouldn't be "a particularly interesting story from a narrative standpoint" even if it was about a pony with a previously developed personality. I didn't mean that any story with a related setup must by definition be dull. I can't comment on "Darkest Before Dawn," as I haven't read it, but I certainly don't assume that it's terrible.

      On an unrelated note, I don't know what you're all talking about re: "faucets." It says "facets" in the review, and it always has. Yup, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

  5. I...err...well...umm...

    I agree.

    That is all.

  6. >faucets

    Oh Chris, u so crazee.

    I daresay you didn't get the first because it was meant as pandering, or at least, those who liked it were pandered to. I mean, people like Twixie (or they used to), they like stories about their favorite characters having kids (or they used to), they like reading about foals (or they used to). You kind of need to have a certain mindset, whereby anything that happens along those lines is worth reading about for its own sake. Your criticisms seem completely valid nevertheless (I say 'seem' only because I haven't read it myself). So, don't feel too bad, you're just not in the target demographic. :)

    1. I've seen this "subject trumps content" reaction many times before in lots of different media. I'm even guilty of it myself to a certain degree.

      But even if it's one of my favorite subjects, I just can't get through a piece that's all world-building and/or background info. Story is the thing! I don't want to read through what ought to be a writer's notes for a story rather than the story itself.

      But some people love that sort of stuff. That's why we all need reviews like this!