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It's apparently that time of year: the bunny population in my neighborhood has doubled in the past week. Not that I'm complaining too much; I like seeing wild rabbits in the morning and evening, and they're a lot cuter than the ones in the pet store if you ask me.
On the other hand, it's been years since anything from the garden has made it more than a quarter-inch out of the dirt before being devoured. The price I pay for living with lagomorphs, I guess.
After the break, my review of Thanqol's The Old Stories.
Impressions before reading: This is another of my old favorites, so I'm looking forward to reading it again. I admit I'm a bit apprehensive, though; I'm a sucker for folktale/mythology-type stories like this, but they're easy to write poorly. Simple stories tend to lay bare any flaws in an author's writing.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: The main six each share a legend which means something to them, and with the addition of a seventh tale, tell the story of Equestria's founding.
Thoughts after reading: A classic folktale consists of several key elements: archetypal characters, a straightforward conflict based on or springing from those archetypes, and a resolution which provides a clear moral. In addition, such a story is usually glossed in a veneer of antiquity, as the presence (or, as the case may be, illusion) of age strengthens the idea that those morals espoused are ageless. There's a reason such stories often begin with "once upon a time;" those words evoke a sense of timelessness which lends gravitas to their subject.
Each of the six tales which make up The Old Stories captures these elements brilliantly. Set at various times close to Celestia's creation of the sun, each offers a thoughtful interpretation of one of the Elements of Harmony, and what it really means to be honest, loyal, generous, kind, or... um, laugh-y and magical. The ponies who figure in each story are painted in broad strokes, creating simplistic but vivid characters who fit perfectly into the storytelling style. Moreover, the morals presented at the end of each are thoroughly appropriate to the stories being told, and expertly encapsulate the straightforward lessons of the classic folktales to which they hearken.
That said, the framing device for those tales was of variable quality. Supposedly, each story was told by one of the main six, but the degree to which the tone of the narration matches the nominal speaker vacillates significantly. There's a noticeable disconnect in language and structure between Dash's "...when Princess Celestia asked him to become a vassal of hers, he turned her down. He was a proud pony and wasn't about to bend knee to some newcomer Alicorn," and, in the very next paragraph, "[They] agreed that they'd settle this with a duel. The original Iron Pony competition! Winner gets Equestria. Stakes couldn't be higher." The latter is clearly Dash telling a story. The former I could buy if she were reading or reciting something, but it just doesn't match the presentation of other narrative example.
As in the last story by Thanqol that I reviewed, this one shows total competence on the writing front, with the glaring exception of an occasional its/it's slip. Language varies somewhat depending on which pony is telling her story (though as I said above, this variation is inconsistent), but word use is overall very good. On a technical front, there's not much to complain about here.
Of the six stories, the weakest was easily Pinkie's. The reason had less to do with the story itself than the introduction to it. To quote her opening paragraph: "Oh, you want to know how I got my cutie mark? That's easy! First off, I was a pegasus, but then somepony said that we should be more racially diverse, and then they rewrote me as an earth pony and - oh no, that's how Equestria was made. I always get those two mixed up." By opening with a break-the-fourth-wall gag, the author abandons that sense of timeless antiquity which is the hallmark of a good folktale (and which is present, in various forms, in each of the other stories), and turns Pinkie's bit into a mere exercise in meta-creation (not helping: Pinkie's segment is full of references to friends of Thanqol's and previously written fanfics. Most are reasonably subtle, but the meta-setup acts to shine a spotlight on these instances, by making them appear to be deliberate story-breaking insertions on Pinkie's part rather than amusing (and more importantly, ignorable) coincidences). Thankfully, the other segments did not suffer from this self-awareness, and when stripped of its more unfortunate inclusions, even Pinkie's story is conceptually solid.
Despite the presentation, there's more to this story than just six short legends. Between them, the stories the ponies tell manage to frame a history of Equestria that is rich in hinted-at depths and meshes well with the mythological feel of the show's less slice-of-life episodes (I'm thinking particularly of the pilot). Moreover, the seventh segment provides a crucial binding, and casts all the previous stories in a new light. I won't say too much for fear of spoiling the story, but it gives the entire work an aching poignancy which I found genuinely moving. Not many fanfics accomplish that.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
In many ways, this is a very simple, bare-bones collection of stories which comprise a single narrative. But the fact that they're simple in no way undermines the obvious skill of the author in crafting these tales, nor the resonance of their morals. Despite a few missteps, this is an elegantly designed piece, and one which I enjoyed immensely.
Recommendation: Fans of folklore and worldbuilding will find this to be an absolute treat, but I'd recommend it to almost anyone. The individual stories are short but thought-provoking, and the way the final segment connects them is touching and bittersweet.
Next time: Off the Edge of the Map, by Daetrin