Monday, May 21, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 68: Off the Edge of the Map

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

Okay, back to review writing.  My thumb's still pretty stiff, but everything else is in working order, and I can type with nine digits just fine.  Thanks for the well-wishes and snark (seriously, who gets hurt bowling?  Oh yeah, this guy).

Below the break, my review of Daetrin's Off the Edge of the Map.

Impressions before reading:  I've read and enjoyed a couple of Daetrin's other stories, so I know this is an author capable of writing something I'll like.  This one's new to me, though.  It's tagged as a shipping story, but the pre-reader quote ("It's fics like these that should remind everypony that relationship building doesn't mean Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy end up head to haunches") sounds promising--at any rate, I endorse the sentiment.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When a trick gone wrong sends Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy far from Ponyville, they must work together to find their way back home.  Needless to say, there are complications.

Thoughts after reading:  One of my most cherished conceits vis-a-vis fanfics is that there's no reason they shouldn't be held to the same standards as any other work of fiction.  That's not to say there aren't differences between derivative and original fiction, but I don't go in for the idea that construction, characterization, and yes, even originality somehow matter less (and thus, should be judged more leniently) just because a story happens to be a fanfic.

Nevertheless, there are differences between how people read fanfics vs. how they read "real" books.  Perhaps the most important difference is how much leeway the author is given: most folks will be a lot quicker to abandon a fan story than they will a work of original fiction.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the net effect is that fanfic authors have a much narrower window to introduce their story, hook their audience, and convince the skeptical reader that yes, this story is going somewhere.

Off the Edge of the Map certainly introduces its hook quickly: it's only a matter of a couple of pages before Dash and Fluttershy have been taken away from their home and cast adrift.  But although the action and characterization are brought in with all possible haste, the story world is left frustratingly undeveloped until the very end of the 30,000+ word piece.  The earliest example of this is the event which strands Dash and Fluttershy, kicking off the entire story: there's no explanation for it, neither of the characters have any useful guesses as to what happened, and there's not even enough information presented for the reader to try to form a hypothesis.  This sets the standard for the rest of the story, with almost every major event being so frustratingly free of context that figuring out what's what is nearly impossible.

This is not to say, I hasten to add, that these events and settings are never explained.  By the conclusion of the story, the world through which Dash and Fluttershy travel has been filled in, and Daetrin does an excellent job of balancing mystery and clarity in the final accounting.  But it is literally not until the very end that most of the major pieces of the story are given any context.  From a strictly character standpoint, this works; Dash and Fluttershy don't even know where they are most of the time, so one could hardly expect them to have any familiarity with the inhabitants of the lands they travel, nor the politics or histories of those places.  But the failure to even provide enough clues for the reader to guess at the motives and intentions of the ponies/creatures they encounter is at times frustrating, and makes reading the story an exercise in trust and patience uncommon in fanfiction.

But as I said, the story in its totality answers all the questions it poses satisfactorily.  Well, other than the inclusion of Fluttershy singing Whither Must I Wander, which despite the superficially appropriate text, seems like an awfully powerful and masculine choice for a Fluttershy song.  Then again, I suppose it's possible the author was unfamiliar with the Vaughn Williams arrangement, and was merely referencing the poem itself.  Still, Williams's setting is how most people would recognize the piece.  But on the fifth hand, it's not like there was a music link in the text or anything.  In summary, I guess I'll write off the seeming strangeness of the inclusion as an idiosyncrasy specific to me; sorry about wasting your time with this paragraph.

The first chapter of this story has a few editing errors, most significantly (and commonly) the author's tendency to break the nigh-sacrosanct "one speaker, one paragraph" rule.  Other than that, there were a few problems of a more subjective nature: the story (again, primarily the first chapter) contains an excessive amount of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome; an occasional "the yellow pegasus" doesn't bother me, but when it's used almost as often as her name in some places, that's an issue.  There were also a few occasions when I felt the narration became overly familiar, if only in comparison to its normal detachment (going from "invisible camera" mode to lines like "They both could have used a day at the spa, but the hot water would have to do," for example), but again, this is a fairly subjective complaint.  Overall, the editing and construction was excellent, and some nonstandard writing choices in the first and third chapters both work well.

As for the shipping... to be honest, it was nearly nonexistent.  That's not a bad thing, it's just an observation; had this simply been labeled as an adventure story, I wouldn't have blinked an eye.  What the author does isn't so much to ship Dash and Fluttershy together, but to show them working together, learning from each other, and being forced to rely on one another when put in a situation where they have literally no one else.  The two ponies play well off of one another, with Dash's braggadocio and confidence a nice foil for Fluttershy's reserve.  But rather than turning the story into a simple lesson about Dash realizing she needs to listen to her friends or Fluttershy learning that she needs to be more assertive (and I think we've had plenty of actual episodes about the latter, anyway.  Seriously, can the poor girl get at least one other defining characteristic from the show writers?), Daetrin weaves a more complex thread, showing that the two need not just to learn from one another, but to rely on one another.  Although it's an excellent adventure in its own right, this story is really about friendship, and the importance of trust and loyalty.  And it makes that point as subtly and elegantly as any reader could ask.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

If I were rating only the first chapter, I'd go quite a bit lower.  But when taken as a whole, this story is a complete package: excellent characterizations, fascinating worldbuilding, and relationship building that focuses not on trying to justify getting its characters together, but on their emotional interactions.

Recommendation:  I think most readers would enjoy this, with the caveat that the early going can be a little frustrating as a result of some very stingy parceling of context.  That aside, even those who despise shipping on principal are likely to find something to enjoy here.

Next time:  It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia, by Bobcat


  1. This has always been one of my favorite stories, so I'm glad to see you enjoyed it a good deal as well. Keep up the great work, and get that thumb feeling better!

  2. And now the day I've been dreading arrive. Curse your bowling injury; I would have already been done with your review by now without it! Also, glad that you're apparently feeling well enough to type.

  3. Any adventure fanfict needs to give a good reason why the characters are leaving home because there is little reason they would just leave. Applejack has a farm to take care of, Rarity has a fashion business, Flutteshy has her animals (and is timid), Twilight has studying to do, Rainbow has weather work, and Pinkie wouldn’t leave just without her friends. For “Off the Edge of the Map”, why Fluttershy and Dash are not in Ponyville is sound, to a point. While the exact nature of how Dash and Fluttershy get to where they were is explained in the info dump at the end, just because it explained something doesn’t mean its audience cannot be rightfully frustrated. Before I learned about the gate, I felt that someone could have a reasonable problem with Fluttershy and Dash coming out of the vortex uninjured given how it was described amongst other things (it’s a vortex with solid lightning after all). I was able to accept it but not without taking note of that fact.

    Pacing, I felt, was an issue. The first half of chapter one is nothing but the two traveling over the ocean and the first half of chapter two is them moving through a cave. It’s repetitive to read them doing the same thing over and over again and it really slows down the piece. Other parts were better but I still think it was a problem. But combined, the whole thing felt rushed. For a month long adventure, more should be done with the writing, beyond saying days had past.

    Let me then add that I’m not a fan of the writing in a number places. It’s incredibly telly in style. For example, “Fluttershy was a gentle spirit. But her gentleness was not weakness.” That is not a line I want to read and it was true in a number of places (it’s not a good sign when the second most powerful moment was told and not shown).

    I’m going to comment on the title because it means something. “Off the Edge of the Map”, that tells me the characters are going to be unfamiliar territory because the edge of the map is where the familiar territory ends (the age of exploration, if you will, hence the chapter titles, which made this old map buff smile). In this sense, the Daetrin got it right. Every place is unfamiliar and strange to both Fluttershy and Dash. I got a strange sense that to increase that the writing felt vague and lacked description (I don’t know why I felt that the latter part because I don’t think it’s true looking back but I just did). I think vagueness extends even further to Draconia, where the morality of Scar’s action remain up to the reader and is never stated to be right or wrong (a wise decision). However, I was never drawn into the mysteries of the world. A lost civilization, okay, why is it special and what makes it different from (and better than) numerous others I’ve read in plenty of other adventures? That was not done for me, and the same could be said of the other two (although less so for Draconia).

    I also have to criticize Draconia because it really doesn’t make much sense. Dragons are enormous animals, because of that it is reasonable to assume that they need a lot of food and space. A city of dragons would need an enormous amount of both but because the city is located in an arctic volcano (Iceland basically but without the fertile land), there shouldn’t be much food for them (there’s no mention of the caves being filled with gems or the like). I don’t care if it’s fantasy, a world needs to have plausibility to work, and for me Draconia doesn’t qualify. In its defense, I will say that the plot there is a good example of how to make characters important in events without turning them into heroes. If anything, it succeeds at shrinking both Dash and Fluttershy to the ants in the larger world that they truly are.

    1. One thing that also bothered me were the characters. Not that Dash or Fluttershy were out of character (Dash seemed a little more reasonable if only because of the situation they were in but Fluttershy seemed too comfortable being out of Equestria at times and I never felt this was a face she was putting on), but neither of them actually grew as characters. Let me go back to Draconia, Scar basically uses them for his own means. Sure, he helps him in the end and they wouldn’t have got out if he didn’t but he uses them in a way that doesn’t show much concern for their lives or inform them about what’s going to happen. That is a very traumatic event, all things considered. I would think that the two would become more cautious and suspicious of strangers from that. But I noticed no such change in how they acted, certainly they should have handled Cantrot differently. While I can’t complain about the lack conflict between the two leads because one of the characters is Fluttershy (because she is naturally passive), it’s just not the most interesting read for lack of drama. It wasn’t until chapter 3, after Cantrot that I finally felt the characters were starting to pull me in (mainly because they started to seem closer to each other than before they left). Particularly, I’m glad was Dash had to treat Fluttershy’s wound. This is a good scene because it pushed Rainbow out of her element (far more than being lost does) and thus made things exciting (and I would have complained if it wasn’t in this work).

      Finally, I have problems with the last two parts. First, I find info dumps at the end to be rather insulting. It’s another way of saying, “You remember all those things you saw, the mysteries, the plot holes, etc.; well here’s to clear all that up”. It just wasn’t needed; a sense of mystery should remain (thankfully Cantrot was left unexplained because I do believe there should be thinks even Twilight and Celestia can’t answer). Either the info should have been revealed closer to the area in question or not in all in my book. The last section I would have cut. I believe it would have been better to let the reader decide what happens to Dash and Fluttershy, rather than openly declare. Subtlety is a beautiful thing and it should have been used here instead.

      I liked it on a conceptual level; I thought the ideas were there. But thinks ranging from the writing, the pacing, to the lack of conflict between Dash and Fluttershy kept out me. It’s certainly not a bad fict, but I didn’t enjoy it.

  4. Dude, it's just "idiosyncrasy". <.< I am so looking forward to your next review, you have no idea.

    1. Do you ever look at something you've written, and say to yourself, "Why on earth did I type that? And why didn't I fix it when I re-read it? And if nothing else, why didn't the squiggly red line underneath the word tip me off that I was being stupid?" 'Cause I do that a lot. Like right now.

    2. With as generally well-edited as your posts are, one or two typos will stand out. Which is what I mean when I say lately it feels like you've been rushing, because there's been upwards of (gasp!) four in a single post! You cad!

  5. I guess I gave up too early on this one. I'll give it another try.

  6. Yup, I pretty much agree wholeheartedly with this one, albeit the lack of context bothered me a lot less than what it did for you, Chris. The limited perspective, and as such the amount of information given to me, created what I felt to be a real sense of mystery and granduer (it is worth mentioning, I think, that this will only apply as long as it makes sense as to why the audience doesn't know the particular information, which it did in this case).

    My one big complaint for this story was a technical one - there were a few times when Daetrin never really built tension within his sentences. The scene with the ice glacier collapsing is a good example. It came out of nowhere, which is fine, but then the narration was exactly the same as it was when he was describing the thing in the first place. Nothing that gets your heart pumping, that's for sure!

    Regardless, I really loved this one. Daetrin has always been a huge inspiration.

  7. Well, if nothing else I re-edited the first chapter when I posted it on FIMFiction (because, whoops, my bad), but OTEOTM was certainly written without any planning whatsoever. It definitely shows in the pacing and the ending <.< Draconia, especially, turned out to be a muddle. The lack of explanation for a lot of things though (such as the Sirrush and what was the deal with Cantrot and so on, I assume you mean?) was a conscious choice. The world is what it is, FS&RD aren't investigating it, they're trying to get home, so there's a purposeful narrowness of viewpoint in order to keep from eclipsing the two. Whether that works or not...well. (And @Burgs, dragons are lithovores. Mountains are their farmlands!).

    I tried fixing that with Apotheosis, but that one feels paced oddly too - if I had to go back I'd move stuff around wholesale, I think. But they were both serious learning experiences for me since those were the most I'd ever written at a time. I suppose that I should go back and try to edit them into submission, but sadly I don't have time. I'm using lessons learned in an original fic piece but yargh I still have issues with action sequences.

    1. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying "I'm done with this story" at some point; writing is, as you say, a learning experience (that said, it does bug me a little when authors (I'm not talking about you, obviously) won't go back and clean up sp/technical errors because they're "finished with that fic;" in many cases, that smacks of laziness to me). I haven't read Apotheosis, but if you learned something from writing OTEOTM that helped you there, then I'd say you're doing something right.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. Well, I finally read this story today.

    I wasn't very fond of it. I really ended up being put off by the first chapter (which still has editing issues), and I never really got into it.

    Now that I've read it, I'm looking at other folks' thoughts on it. I can see you saw many of the things I did.