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The Tour of California started on Sunday! Ah, one of the few chances the average American has to watch professional cycling on live television (plus you don't have to get up early for an entire month to do so, unlike with the Tour de France). On the downside, it means I'll be spending several hours a day parked in front of the TV for the next week, but that's a small price to pay for televised cycling.
After the break, my review of TotalOverflow's Macintosh.
Impressions before reading: Judging by the tags and description, this looks like it's going to be a character study of Applejack's big brother. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but the story is 16+ chapters and nearly 100,000 words in length; that's awfully long for a piece of this sort. Hopefully it doesn't bog down.
A look at comments on the story (both from readers of this blog and elsewhere) reveals that attitudes toward it are, to put it delicately, "mixed." Well, I've never been one to temper my opinions based on those of others, but the fact that there are a significant group of folks (albeit a minority, again going by the comments I see) who strongly dislike Macintosh probably isn't a good sign.
Finally, the author notes that some portions of this story (specifically, the bits involving Rarity and Derpy) are based on his previous story, Opposites. However, this is not a sequel, and reading the one is not required to make sense of the other.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: At the urging of his family, Big Macintosh leaves the farm and spends a day in town for the first time in ages. Little do any of them realize, that day out is just the start of a whole new beginning for the farm pony: making new friends, opening old wounds, and learning a bit about the town and himself along the way.
Thoughts after reading: Let me start by observing that I have no trouble understanding why some readers would react negatively to the central plot of Macintosh. Depending on how one interprets it, this story can be read either as a tale of personal growth and emotional development, or a screed decrying any attempt to break from one's predestined role. Obviously, the latter interpretation is one that a lot of folks will take exception to.
But the story certainly doesn't need to be read that way, and I found the former interpretation more natural (and presumably, more in line with the author's intent). Big Mac, at the start of the story, is virtually friendless, and allows his every action to be guided solely by a sense of long-suffering duty. By the time "the end" rolls around, he's developed a much healthier, more collected sense of himself. The manner in which this comes about does indeed raise questions about the role of free will vs. self-determination in Equestria, but I personally didn't find this to be excessively detrimental to the story.
Which is not to say that Macintosh is without issues, the biggest for me being the writing itself. While the piece was near-perfect when it came to out-and-out technical mistakes, a number of frankly bizarre decisions which I can hardly call anything but errors are present throughout. From always putting the phrase 'Summer Sun Celebration' in single quotes to constant mid-word capitalizations on compounds (BloomBerg, AppleLoosa, etc.) to the occasional misused said-ism, there were a number of issues with the writing on the piece. The biggest problem, however, was the overly tell-y narration. In a character study, the usual rules about minimizing the amount of stated interpretation (rather than description) in the narration can be relaxed somewhat, since the nominal purpose of the piece is to describe the attitudes of the focus character. While encouraging readers to infer as much as possible is still generally the best way to tell one's story, a certain amount of telling can be acceptable. But this story still bucks the show-vs-tell rule of thumb far too often for my taste. Sentences like "The tremendous amount of excitement overwhelmed Macintosh, so he headed home, where he hoped he could find some peace and quiet, and maybe even spend some quality time with the family," are sadly the rule, rather than the exception, in this fic. Also, as the above sentence almost-but-actually-not-quite demonstrates, there were occasional problems with run-on sentences.
One other issue: fan references. Having the town newspaper be named "The Equestria Daily?" Not to my taste, but tolerable. Having one of the books in the library be titled "The Adventures of Captain Sethisto?" That took me right out of the tale the author was trying to tell. Any attempt at serious storytelling suffers when it starts including out-of-story jokes like this, as they break immersion--indeed, their purpose is to break immersion, by calling attention to out-of-story people, things, or events. There were only a few fan references like this, but they were a major distraction for me.
Then, there's the matter of characterization. This was pretty hit-or-miss in the supporting characters. Applejack and Applebloom both were totally convincing to me; the portrayal of AJ in particular had that conflicting combination of common sense and stubbornness which I associate with her, and which many authors seem to struggle with. On the other hand, none of the three "wacky" ponies in this story (Lily, Granny Smith, and (of course) Pinkie Pie) really worked for me. All three, but Lily in particular, were marked by an over-reliance on non-sequiturs and total, as opposed to obfuscating, nonsense. The minor characters in this story varied greatly in this sense; some were very well realized, while others were sadly unconvincing.
But of course, the biggest question in this story is the characterization of Macintosh himself. It's his story, after all, and it's on the author's interpretation of him that the success of the story ultimately hinges. Personally, I was able to relate to Macintosh very well; the sense of stoicism and the willingness to indefinitely, even permanently, defer his own wants and desires played well in the context of the story, and fit his on-screen characterization (such as it is) perfectly. Likewise, his social ineptness but general good intentions made him a believable doofus, occasionally sticking his nose where it didn't belong or saying something utterly tone-deaf, but ultimately redeeming himself with his good-natured commitment to keeping his promises and doing right by others.
That said, there was the issue of how all this came to be. Put simply, the "present" in which the story is set doesn't mesh terribly well with Macintosh's backstory in tone. The impetus for the entire fic is that Macintosh goes into town for the first time in years, where he instantly starts making friends and solving problems. The pacing is ridiculously fast, and the suggestion that Mac had literally no contact with anyone from Ponyville for the past few years is a stretch, but I was able to buy it. After all, and whether deliberately or not, it ends up mirroring the pace of social growth of a certain purple unicorn in the pilot episode of the show.
On the other hand, Mac's childhood is revealed to be a very dark, unhappy time. In another story, this might work, but it contrasts so strongly with the show-tone of the present that the two feel almost like different stories. When the larger part of your tale feels like the Ponyville (pre-NMM) portion of the pilot episode in tone and pacing, but the rest is full of child abuse and abandonment issues, it's hard to forge a cohesive feel for the piece. That said, the backstory set up Mac's character just fine; the issue was the construction of the relationship between the two narrative elements.
While this fic doesn't go in for heavy-handed moralizing, it does have a very definite viewpoint. For my thoughts on the matter in a broad sense, refer back to this post. In regards to this specific example, I will say that the piece expresses very clearly a bias towards duty to family, the importance of honesty (and not merely in the most literal sense of "not telling a direct lie"), and placing others before oneself. Again, this is not a polemic, but these values are very obviously expressed over the course of the story. Naturally, how highly one regards these values relative to others (of the top of my head: personal happiness, self-determination, and community welfare) will strongly affect how one reacts to some of the plot elements. What I feel TotalOverflow never failed to do, however, is to show why Mac dealt with the situations he encountered the way he did, and how he came to his conclusions. It's possible to read the end of this story as being a fairly straightforward happy ending or as a bittersweet tale of acceptance, but in either interpretation Big Mac's motives and logic are clear and understandable.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
There are a number of problems with the writing of this piece, and the characterizations of the minor (i.e. not Big Mac) characters varied from excellent to cringeworthy. Furthermore, the dark backstory seems almost like it came out of a different world than the bubbly Equestria we see in the rest of the fic. But what rescues this story is the thoughtful and nuanced interpretation of the character traits most often associated with the Apple family: loyalty, honesty, and sense of family. To my pre-reading concerns: this is a lengthy tale, but it creates a complete, complex, and for me, a believable character over the course of its 100,000 words.
Recommendation: This is obviously not a story for those looking for a short read. Frankly, the writing is unexceptional at best (though the actual editing is good), so I'd point those looking for master wordsmithery elsewhere. But the emotional growth of the main character was very well done, and readers looking for a story about personal (pony-al?) development will find this a very thoughtful tale with a well-articulated view of the meaning of responsibility.
Next time: The Old Stories, by Thanqol