Friday, May 4, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 63: The Thessalonica Legacy

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

Just thought I'd share: in a rare concession to modern convenience, I recently bought (okay, was given as a gift) an e-reader.  As such, this is the first story I've ever reviewed which I didn't read off a computer screen!  I have to say, it is a lot easier on the eyes; I can't look at a backlit screen for more than an hour or so without taking a break, but I had no such troubles this time out.  Hopefully, this'll let me read and review a bit faster!

After the break, Dashukta's The Thessalonica Legacy.

Impressions before reading:  A BattleTech crossover?  I know almost nothing about that system other than that it's (among other things) a tabletop game that involves a lot of semi-humanoid robots (post-reading edit: apparently they're semi-humanoid vehicles) fighting each other.  But the description promises that it's "Written with those who are not familiar with the BattleTech universe in mind," so hopefully that won't cause me any problems.  Also, this is the first story I've reviewed here that carried the Human tag (though a couple others, like Jack and the Ponies, have technically been Human in Equestria fics as well).  I don't have particularly strong feelings about HiE fics, other than a general awareness that a disproportionate number of them are awful, but I'm well aware that many readers loath them on principal.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A small spaceship from the BattleTech universe suffers a misjump while traveling between planets, and the crew find themselves circling an alien world in an impossible location.

Thoughts after reading:  Despite assurances to the contrary, I was pretty much lost for the entire first chapter.  The story begins by bombarding the reader with a plethora of names, places, and weapons, few of which are easily recognizable.  Thankfully, the subsequent story is much easier to follow than the first chapter alone would suggest, but I wouldn't fault any non-BattleTech fan who didn't make it that far.

But one problem that remains from the first chapter to the end of the piece is the interchangeable nature of most of the humans involved.  A mechwarrior named Ramirez is the closest this story has to a central character, but even after seventeen chapters and an epilogue I couldn't tell you much about him.  Sure, I could tell you about his career or his physical appearance, but as for characterization?  I could sum up my total knowledge about him as, "he's not an asshole."  Most of the humans in this story are woefully underdeveloped, often given a single trait (if that) with which they can be associated.  That's a double whammy in a story like this; not only are they generally uninteresting, but the lack of nuance in the characters renders one of the central plotlines, an attempt to find a saboteur among the crew, almost painful in its obviousness.  Although the author attempts several twists and turns, it was clear to me by the middle of the story who the traitor was, and who s/he was working for.

On a more positive note, I think Dashukta did a lot of good things with the idea of first contact between the humans and ponies.  Showing the tentative first steps from the perspective of both sides proved a nice touch, and I was pleased to see that considerable attention had been given to the most likely hangups in understanding (language barrier, diet, the existence of magic, etc.).  Many of these were either brought up and glossed over, or were quickly resolved with technology and/or magic, but the fact that they were addressed at all made the "alien contact" feel much more realistic to me than many other fanfics have managed.

That feeling of "glossing over" wasn't limited to early interactions between the humans and ponies, however.  Most of the story's conflicts, ranging from minor personality clashes to world-altering political struggles,were summarily dealt with and subsequently abandoned as soon as they were brought up.  The entire story, save one or two larger arcs, had an abrupt, almost reactionary feel to it.  This was exacerbated by occasional bouts of move-along-itis, that insidious disease that causes an author to decide that the story needs to hurry up and reach its next setpiece/major plot development, and results in them dumping a paragraph or three of "then X did blah, Y did blah, Z did blah.  Then X did blah..." and so on, so that they can move things along.  Moreover, the story asks us to feel invested in a lot of things which were never given a chance to make an impact on the reader.  To cite an early example, a comrade of Ramirez's dies in the first chapter.  He's immediately forgotten until something like 40,000 words later, when suddenly Ramirez is overcome with grief and a sense of responsibility for the death.  After that, neither these feelings, nor the deceased himself, are mentioned again for the rest of the story.

Editing on the piece was decent, especially considering its size.  There was a fair amount of missing punctuation, mostly prior to dialogue ("Twilight ignored him 'I noticed something a few days ago,' is a representative example), but nothing that really impeded readability.  The last few chapters were a bit sloppier, though again, far from unreadable.

For the most part, I liked the tone the piece struck.  Keeping Equestria the same basically peaceful place from the show, and using "normal" humans to highlight the differences between their world and ours, can easily turn into heavy-handed aesoping.  This story walked the delicate line pretty well, keeping the goals and ambitions of both the humans and the ponies in perspective, and never "taking sides," as it were.  Towards this end, and on a more opinion-y note, I personally didn't like the portrayal of Celestia in her role as ruler of Equestria.  However, I thought she filled an important role, and was used fairly well in that regard.

I wasn't impressed by the ending.  It wasn't particularly offensive or illogical, but the story just seemed to... stop.  I think a lot of this ties into what I noted above about the abruptness of plot development/resolution; there wasn't a good way to tie this story together, because there just wasn't much left at the end.  Instead, the narrative concludes with the humans still at loose ends, and the ponies in the middle of figuring out how to deal with the fallout of the humans' arrival.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

A lot of stories have tried to show first contact between humans and ponies in some form; The Thessalonica Legacy has one of the best portrayals of it that I've seen.  Unfortunately, there's a lot of problems with pacing and characterization here.

Recommendation:  While this will certainly appeal to BattleTech fans more than others, the story does a reasonably good job of making itself accessible (with the crucial caveat that it doesn't really start doing so until after the first chapter).  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone looking for strong characterizations or tight plotting, but those seeking a first contact story that's had a lot of thought put into it will probably find plenty to like about The Thessalonica Legacy.

Next time:  The Dread Chitin, by Karazor


  1. Damn. I was hoping to be actively swayed one way or the other by your review. I tried reading the first chapter and was immediately turned off by the simple use of the chassis designations that made it feel like one big run up to a Battletech circle-jerk. This from a Mechwarrior player (PC and RPG) who actually LIKES the universe!

    Sadly, I'm still wavering. Ahh well, Pony Fiction Vault's offering was tiny today, so I guess it's only a matter of time before I get bored and read it anyway. Coherent plot and good characterisations are some of my main requirements for a good fic though, so I'm still not sure why I'm even considering it...

    1. Don't worry, I only used the chassis designations in the opening chapter to denote the presence of specific variants. They don't come into play after that (in fact, there's only one mech that features after the opening chapter, anyway)

  2. Ooh. I was hoping for 3 stars, but I'll take it, as I do appreciate this. I particularly appreciate this for one major issue: this is the first actual criticism the piece has received. Really. This is the most feedback I've gotten at all. Mostly I just hear "I really liked it", or "the villain was really obvious".

    And you know what? I agree. I agree that the pacing is off and the characterizations--especially of the humans--are weak. I knew they were weak when I was writing them, but I was worried that expanding too much would just bloat an already lengthy fanfic. Perhaps I strayed too far in the other direction. And on that note, actually, the identity of the saboteur wasn't really meant to be much of a mystery. That character was a one-dimensional hate-this-guy plot device from the get-go.
    I guess I could have been more explicit with the human-side of the ending, giving them a scene of them arriving at their destination instead of just implying it.

    When I was writing it,I actually had in mind a "junior-fiction" level--something a 5th or 6th grader might read. That's not an excuse or a justification, just a little background. I wasn't shooting for a great piece of literature, just a quick-n-fun mashup adventure. As a result, it is very contrived and not near as thoroughly developed as possible.

    I do kind of find it amusing that the number one "complaint" I've seen from the BattleTech fan side is that it is too peaceful and doesn't have enough combat and action.

    1. Well, you can be sure I'll come back and give you my full review when I'm done. I'm too intrigued not to read it now...

    2. On the one hand, it's nice to know that my review is appreciated. On the other... the fact that so many authors have told me that my reviews were the first critical or in-depth ones they'd heard is always a little disheartening. Not really unexpected, but disheartening.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment; now that you've mentioned it, I can see what you were trying for re. reading level. It's always nice to hear from the author!

    3. Over halfway. off to bed soon but wanted to write out some stuff while it's fresh in my brain (my memory is terrible).

      The whole first chapter felt like it just didn't need to be there. There was no emotional investment or ramification to it. It didn't set up any characters or personality, and it so far it hasn't had any effect on the story. I was starting to feel the same way about the opening pony chapters, BUT, once things started rolling with Twilight's deductions, I actually started to feel like the pacing actually worked really well, and I was just reeling from that first chapter.

      So far, I can second Chris' comments about the lack of characterisation on the part of the humans. In fairness, I haven't felt like it's actively impeded the story, but it does feel a little flat from time to time.

      What I can't agree with Chris on (and I stand to be corrected as the story progresses, of course), is Celestia's portrayal and Ramirez's flashback. I feel that not only was Celestia not 'off', but actually one of the better portrayals of her I've read in the last few months. She's open, honest, yet protective to the point of using an aggressive tone. She worries about her little ponies in the short term, yet still thinks of what's best in the long term. It's pretty much perfect Celestia as I see it. Of course, that's just my opinion.

      As for Ramirez 'sudden grief', I guess I just had a completely different take on the scene as a whole. It made sense, it felt as realistic as could be expected, and it clearly existed as a set-piece to juggle the differences in morality in front of the reader. In that respect, I really can't see what could be said to be wrong with it. I can't imagine why it would have come up earlier, and I can't see why it would come up again. I liked it.

      Chapters 13+ tomorrow!

    4. All right...FINE. So I stayed up and read the rest of it. You can take that as several + points :P

      I really had no issues with the latter part of the story at all. The lack of characterisation did shine through a little more jarringly here (Twilight missed her chats with the captain...yet I could barely even recall their interactions), but again, it didn't actually take away from the story that was being told.

      I also found no issue with the way it ended. Mystery > twist > action/chase > decisions > wrap up. Seems like a fairly textbook application of basic story principals to me. Yes, the saboteur wasn't some big mystery, but that doesn't mean it didn't HAVE mystery. It's just as valid to make something fairly obvious, yet let the reader ponder the way in which it will play out. It's just appealing to a different mentality of reader, and I'd have to say it is absolutely right up my street.

      The only things that I found jarring was the ease with which the ponies adapted to technology, and the linguistic bleed that seemed to occur remarkably fast. Oh, and the explanation of how to force the mis-jump. Maybe it's just my techy side coming out, but I felt that it fell in the sloppy crevice between explaining something believably, or just not bothering. It felt a bit like really bad techno-babble from the original Star trek series.

      Generally, a really nice read though. Well paced end-to-end, and incorporated some fun insights on the 'silliness' that is MLP. Even I found a sizeable number of questionable grammar, and I'm hardly good at that stuff yet, but even so, I think you're a little unlucky to get only 2 stars for this one, Dashukta.

      having finishing, I confirm my earlier opinions on Celesta and Ramirez's grief. I thought they were both well done and entirely fitting to both the story and the MLP background.

      Good stuff, and thank you for writing it.


  3. Dashukta's comment up there is telling; this is the first non-positive response to Thessalonica I've read, too. I also can't help but feel like I read another story about this same sort of thing very recently, sci-fi humans making first contact with Equestria.

    1. No idea. It was fairly recent, I'm pretty sure it's on EQD, and I think the big difference was that the first contact was unintentional and hostile. Actually, looking at the sci-fi tag, I don't think it is on EQD, so it was probably one of the last things I pre-read. <.< Huh. Hope it comes back.

  4. While the first chapter is a bit off-putting for non-Battletech fans, I thought the style and pacing fit the pony world well. Despite the story's length, it reads more like an episode complete with a letter to Celestia at the end. My Little Pony episodes aren't exactly big on in-depth characterization or plot development. Even after two seasons we've learned very little about the main cast. It took until the wedding episode to learn that Twilight had a brother and we still know nothing about Fluttershy or Dash's families. Characters are also inconsistent with Flutter shy being very assertive one episode and in panic again by the next. Rarity, the spirit of generosity, has an entire episode about how she needs to be more generous with her sister. Twilight, who constantly worries about the fate of Equestria from the Nightmare Moon prophecy, to the snoring dragon, to her time traveler self, never once asks her brother about the threat made against Canterlot. As for bad guys, Mmmystery on the Orient Express is about the only episode where the "bad guy" isn't immediately obvious, though I suspected the ponies right off. Even in the wedding episode I distrusted the impostor Cadence about 3 seconds after she was introduced. I wouldn't call Thessalonica a great piece of literature, but considering it's source material I think the story was well done and entertaining. I particularly liked how accurately he portrayed the main pony cast without altering them to fit the story.