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Today, I (finally) review one of the best-known of this fandoms "major," i.e. long, stories: Jetfire's It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door. While it's not the longest (that distinction goes to one of the Fallout: Equestria side-stories, I believe) nor the most famous (Past Sins almost certainly has that honor), it is regularly held up as one of the best examples of the amazing literature this fandom is capable of producing. Does it live up to the hype? My thoughts, after the break.
Impressions before reading: My first exposure to the world of Middle Earth was pre-natal: my mother read The Hobbit aloud while she was pregnant, her own variation on the fad of playing classical music for your fetus that was just starting to become popular when I conceived. I first read Lord of the Rings on my own in 4th grade, and have since voraciously consumed all of the materials which Christopher Tolkien has gathered and published in their various states of completion. My first exposure to fanfiction was in the LotR community, and I wrote some truly awful stories and even worse poetry over several years, exploring the universe that Tolkien had created. I think it's safe to say that his writings have influenced me as much or more than any other work of fiction I've ever consumed.
What I'm getting at is, I really love LotR. And so, when Dangerous Business was being written, I eagerly devoured every chapter and loved every second of it. I'd say I probably enjoyed it more than any other fanfiction I've ever read. But, but, but... I wasn't exactly reading critically at the time. I was looking at the story through the eyes of an enthralled fan, eagerly devouring the fanfiction equivalent of uncut heroin: a homage to Tolkien, told via ponies. Nothing wrong with that; it's not like one's enjoyment of a story doesn't count if one fails to properly parse and analyze every sentence. But to write a useful review, a more analytical approach to reading is required. I really hope this story holds up as well as I want it to, but we'll see.
Also, I see there was some editing done back in October. Looks like it was mostly general clean-up and a few minor scene additions. I remember the story being reasonably clean when I first read it, but few and far between are the fics that can't stand a little tidying. Obviously, my review will be based on the "revised" version.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Twilight falls victim to a dangerous illness which can be cured by the Beneviolet, a flower that is only found in a mountain range far to the west. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity set off to retrieve the magical flower, on a quest that will take them far past Equestria's borders. Together, they must travel strange lands, racing against time as Twilight's condition steadily deteriorates.
Thoughts after reading: First off, let me apologize; this is going to be a long review. Not just because I'm reviewing a long story, but because I'm going to spend a lot of time comparing this story and LotR, and I love LotR, and I get really loquacious when talking about something I love.
One of the most important themes in LotR, and to my mind one of the most powerful, is the redeeming power of grace. What too many people seem to forget when they talk about the books is that the fellowship's quest failed. Frodo was unable to cast the ring away, instead claiming it for himself when he finally had the opportunity to destroy it. But through providence, Middle-Earth was saved: Gollum's final betrayal effected the ring's destruction, where no mortal will could have succeeded. This was possible only because Frodo and Sam spared Gollum's life time and again, even after they "knew" that to do so would only endanger their quest. A more coldly rational person would have slit Gollum's throat at one of the dozen opportunities they had and have been done with him, but because Frodo and Sam showed mercy even when logic demanded otherwise, Sauron was defeated. And because of that mercy which they showed, the fellowship was redeemed despite its ultimate failure. Throughout his works, Tolkien came again and again to this theme, but never (to my mind) more eloquently than at the summit of Mount Doom.
The appeal of this theme is obvious: it tells us that mercy and kindness are transcendent values, and assures us that the exercise of both will be rewarded in the end, the preponderance of real-life evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It promises that good will triumph over ill, even if there is quite literally no way for good to succeed. And it shows (are you listening, Peter Jackson? This next part is important) that heroism isn't defined by violence or physical prowess, but by one's capacity for doing the right thing.
Dangerous Business is not a crossover with LotR, nor is it even structured particularly similarly in terms of plot. But the thematic ties (as well as the obvious shout-outs, including the title itself) between the two are unmistakable. Jetfire's key message throughout the story is that a decision made for the right reasons will always prove to be the right decision in the end. Although less nuanced than Tolkien's vision of redemption by grace, the similarities between the two are unmistakable. And the care which Jetfire puts into this central theme is equally unmistakable; the story constantly shows the characters' struggles to figure out what the right thing to do is, and how they must go about doing it. Sometimes they seem to chose wisely, other times poorly. For example, even a second read-through leaves me unconvinced that the "best" course of action at the very beginning wouldn't have been to let Dash and a couple of other pegasi go try and fetch the flower, rather than bringing along Applejack and Rarity. But what the author flawlessly succeeds at is showing that, because these choices were made for the right reasons (concern for Twilight, friendship, etc.), they are the right choices. And if a story that takes such an admittedly concrete and archetypal view of right and wrong isn't for everyone, then this is no less an exemplar of such storytelling for that.
The writing style throughout this story is unobtrusive, its heavy emphasis on narration mitigated by the clear and straightforward language used. If the style attracts no comment, however, that doesn't mean there are no issues with the writing whatsoever. In particular, this story is plagued by an acute case of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome, with short descriptions constantly replacing character names. In this case, the name is quite literal: ctrl-f "lavender unicorn" in chapter eleven and you'll see what I mean. Oddly enough, the middle section of the story seems to be the most affected by this--the first and last few chapters rely much less on LUS, to the point where I might not even have mentioned it had I skipped the middle section entirely. But while few readers will object to an occasional reference to Dash as a "sky-blue pegasus," constant overuse of the phrase in place of her name eventually becomes off-putting. Otherwise, the fic was extremely well edited, especially considering its size.
The pacing of the story is slow, but never draggy. Much of the story concerns traveling, and as with real traveling, action is a relative rarity. Much time is spent on the characters figuring out what to eat, how to distribute their supplies, and with the three ponies simply chatting with one another as they travel. I think an excellent job is done of maintaining a balance between emphasizing the relative haste (and necessity therefor) of the quest, and showing just how long two weeks really is, not to mention just how far they must travel.
As I mentioned earlier, this story is basically an homage to LotR. This includes not just broad thematic links, but entire races and nations which are designed with an eye toward those Tolkien created. Specifically, the land of Gildsedale (Rohan) and the Shimmerwood (Lothlorien), and the inhabitants of each (the Rohirrim and Elves, respectively). Of these, I was more impressed by the former than the latter. Part of this is no doubt that the residents of Gildsedale were simply easier to write; a strong-willed, militaristic people have a more natural appeal to the reader (as strong-willed guardians and/or stiff-necked antagonists) than do a race of aloof, alien beings, whose knowledge and whose cares are explicitly beyond the ken of the protagonist's (and by extention, the reader's) comprehension.
Tolkien combated this in his most famous work (we'll leave his posthumous writings aside for the moment) by taking great pains to show that the Elves weren't just humans, only smarter and better and more magical. In his writing, they were almost tragic figures, whose inability to adapt to change made every passing year a new source of pain, and whose great hubris was not the desire for power, but the desire for stasis; an impossible dream that good things should not fade. Viewed in this light, the Elves become almost pitiable. And in any case, speaking of "better" or "worse" becomes meaningless in this context, as it's obvious that Elves are far too different from humans in temperament, flaws, and needs to even try and compare them in such terms.
Whether Tolkien succeeded or not in showing this is debatable; certainly, plenty of folks have read the stories and come away with the message that Elves were better than humans, period. But I can hardly fault any reader who comes to the equivalent conclusion here; despite a tragic and hubris-filled backstory given by Galadriel's expy, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Shimmerwood's inhabitants are "better" than Equestria's. Even with the flaws which ruined them in times past, the residents of the wood are essentially shown to be wiser, more powerful (though they disavow the idea), and all-around superior morally and physically to the Ponyville contingent. This was by no means a fatal flaw to the story, but it did make them harder to relate to as characters and as a nation.
Interestingly, the culture I found most intriguing was one which I believe Jetfire invented whole cloth: an entire race who have dedicated themselves to acting as messengers, with the goal of promoting worldwide peace through speedy and open communication between the rulers of various nations. In addition to having a fascinating history (and to having a very likable fellow as their primary representative in this story), they were responsible for what is easily the strangest section of the entire story: a dream sequence/vision quest. This section of the story (and it alone; the rest of the fic sticks to convention with regards to formatting, an excess of bolded words used as emphasizers notwithstanding) utilizes colored text and an abrupt tense change to convey both the otherworldly bizarreness and the intense intimacy of the dream. For myself, I found this to be perhaps the most powerful portion of the entire story. The dramatic departure from convention made it stand out exactly as it was supposed to. That said, I doubt every reader will appreciate it; while the execution was excellent, the simple fact that it's so different from the rest of the story will alienate some readers, and others will no doubt find the use of colored text affectatious.
One thing which this story did exceptionally well was to take the canon characters it focused on, and expand upon them. Applejack, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash are all front and center for the majority of this story's 150,000-ish words, and by the end of that time the author had not only shown his ability to represent them faithfully, but had built both their backstories and their interactions up to the point where they were as fully realized as any fictional characters reasonably can be. Dash in particular was given a great deal of attention, focusing especially on one of the primary roots of her insecurity. And although the story was mainly centered on those three, just enough glimpses of Twilight and the other ponies were given to remind the reader what the impetus for the entire story really was.
One of Tolkien's great strengths as a storyteller was his ability to make the world his characters inhabited seem real (which was a good thing, because he was frankly a little hit-or-miss on making the characters themselves seem real). The primary way he accomplished this was by filling his stories with unexplained events or history and expressions never given context save in his own notes. Doing so shows the reader that the world doesn't consist only of those things which directly impact the protagonist and their quest, but that the other inhabitants of this secondary reality have their own tales, which we are sadly not privy to. From the barrow-wights to the tale of Beren and Luthien to the Mouth of Sauron (and not the travesty that Peter Jackson made of him, either) to the ever-enigmatic Tom Bombadil, the world of Middle-Earth as presented in LotR is rich with mysteries and hinted-at depths, which have fired countless imaginations ever since the books were published.
Jetfire attempts the same, with mostly positive results. The ponies' first encounter in the Drakonridge mountains, for example, does a wonderful job of creating a larger world for its inhabitants: what it is that they encountered is never fully explained, and the sense of mystery and depth it lends the story is welcome. However, there were a few misfires. In particular, I'm thinking of the komagas: because they play such a central role to several chapters worth of action, lack of knowledge about them on the part of the residents of Gildsedale is jarring. True, the folk of Gildsedale are shown to be a people more concerned with the here and now than with distant causes and hypothetical histories, but the sheer incuriosity they display towards the komagas is staggering.
Then, there was the ending, by which I mean pretty much everything past the Shimmerwood. I'm of two minds about it, but my thoughts basically come down to this: on a thematic level, I thought it was perfect. The way it dramatically showcases how doing what you know is right is never a hopeless gesture flawlessly encapsulated the story's primary message. There's a particular passage from the penultimate chapter ending with the phrase, "but they didn't" which I wish I could quote, if only because it's so powerful in its sureness and simplicity, but... well, spoilers, much? In any case, the emotional and structural flow of the ending are breathtaking.
On the other hand, I had some issues with the logic (and logistics) of the situation. Without saying too much, I thought that the final obstacle which the three ponies had to overcome as they attempted to obtain the Beneviolet was ill-explained and ill-explored. It appeared too suddenly to have the dramatic impact it deserved (though it certainly had plenty of shock value), and I think there needed to be a bit more clarity about what ultimately happened to it.
Star rating: ★★★★★ (what does this mean?)
I've gone back and forth between four and five stars for a while now (which is part of why this post took so long to write, the other part being the fact that it's about twice as long as my average review). The case for four is easy: I can just point out the LUS and the weaknesses of the ending, mention that some of the attempts at worldbuilding came across more as plotholes than anything else, and conclude with a line like "this was an incredible story, but these flaws were too much for me to overlook entirely."
But that doesn't do justice to what Jetfire's accomplished. I'm not talking about wordcount or fame, though this story has both; I'm talking about vision. Dangerous Business takes a simple, elegant central theme, interweaves it with subplots demonstrating the importance of loyalty, generosity, and honesty, and creates from them a poignant yet uplifting conceit around which to build. It creates a half-dozen histories of various races and nations, and makes each a fully realized entity. It builds a more complete vision of the world of Equestria than any other story I've read. It's a damn fine adventure/exploration story in its own right. And it is at turns touching, funny, and positively engrossing. Compared to all that, the flaws I found seem pretty trivial.
This story may not be perfect. But it's better than a lot of stories that are.
Recommendation: This truly is one of the best stories the fandom has to offer. Not everyone will like it, but hey; not everyone likes LotR (no accounting for taste, I suppose). If you have little patience for stories which take the time to explore their characters and their setting in turn, and would prefer a steady stream of action in your fics, then this isn't for you. If you can't stand for important things to be left unexplained, this story will drive you batty. But if you're looking for one of the best pieces of fanfiction ever written, I recommend It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door.
Next time: Feedback, by Kegisak