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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