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After much cajoling from my sister, I'm set to give Legend of Korra a look this weekend. I never watched Avatar, but she assures me that I don't need to have done so. We'll see; I'm not usually a fan of starting anywhere but at the beginning when it comes to entertainment consumption. But hey, it's worth a shot. Right?
After the break, my review of Bobcat's It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia and its sequel, Semper Fidelis.
NOTE: This top section is only a review of It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia. My review of Semper Fidelis is featured after it.
Impressions before reading: Although this story is new to me, I know that I've enjoyed everything else I've read by Bobcat. I also know that he hasn't been looking forward to me reviewing these stories. I further know that authors are often the worst judges of their own material. On the whole, I'm optimistic, but we'll see. I mean, it's not like it's a good sign when someone's embarrassed about their own work.
Also, if this is supposed to be a crossover with the TV show of the same name (albeit more traditionally spelled), then I should admit that I've never seen said show. I'm pretty sure it isn't, though.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Applejack and Soarin both find their weekend plans undone, they decide to try their best to salvage the day while exploring the city of Fillydelphia.
Thoughts after reading: If the last story I reviewed showed that, to quote its pre-reader for the second time in as many posts, "relationship building doesn't mean [the protagonists] end up head to haunches," then this story demonstrates another oft-overlooked truth: a shipfic doesn't need to have True Love™ as its endgame to be satisfying. There's no reason a fanfic can't go a significantly lower-stakes route (for example, having its characters agree to go on a date sometime) and still be perfectly satisfying. In fact, there are some sizable advantages to this approach, most notably that it's much easier to write a story which doesn't strain credulity about two characters meeting and getting along really well than it is to write one about two characters who pledge their undying devotion to one another after knowing each other for only a few thousand words.
[Edit: Wow, I was just re-reading that last sentence as I proofread this post, and it took me a while to make heads or tails of it. I'm going to go ahead and leave it as-is; frankly, I'm almost perversely proud to have written something so garbled which is still grammatically correct (I think). I tell you all what, some days...]
What Bobcat gives the reader on the shipping front is something that could have come straight out of real life (leaving aside the fact that the protagonists are talking ponies, obviously): two near-strangers end up spending some time together, find out they enjoy each others' company, and that's it. The l-word is never even mentioned. What will be the ultimate fate of the relationship between these two? This question is left up to the reader to answer (sequel notwithstanding), which seems to me a refreshing bit of openness in the too-often rigid and by-the-numbers genre that is shipping.
The biggest problems in the story comes from its largest setpieces. A Willy Wonka parody near the middle, for example, contains plenty of funny lines (my favorite: after the Wonka expy tells the troupe that "everything here is edible, even the grass!" Applejack deadpans, "Uh, grass is already edible."), but falls flat overall, many of its elements seemingly present solely for the purpose of being included (as opposed to, say, because they're funny and/or plot-relevant). When a parody becomes too literal and tries to shoehorn in too many references it stagnates, and that happens to a degree here. It almost felt like the author was going through a checklist, dutifully marking off what scenes and cultural touchstones he'd included, which (as the weaker installments of any abridged series will readily demonstrate) isn't so much funny in its own right as it is funny-in-quotation-marks because the reader recognizes what you're doing. A couple of other major scenes had similar problems, to the story's detriment.
But when the focus shifted to character interaction, the writing really shone. As with previous stories by this author, there is no cause to complain on the technical front, and dialogue is exceptional when it's allowed to take center stage. This may be another part of why the larger setpieces seemed to fall short compared to the rest of the story; while the narration in this piece is by no means poorly done, all of the story's highest points are marked by characters sitting down (metaphorically speaking) and having actual conversations. AJ's accent is a little over-written for my tastes, but it's both consistent (something many writers seem to have trouble with) and perfectly legible at all times.
As for the characters themselves? The author follows the example of the show's better episodes by allowing them to be comical without turning them into stand-up comedians. AJ and the other major characters all have plenty of amusing lines, but they generally aren't out cracking jokes direct. Instead, it's the way they interact with the world and other ponies that brings levity to the story. Indeed, each of the major ponies is treated with a fair amount of respect, which keeps the occasional slide into more serious/syrupy territory from feeling out of place. There may be jokes involving the main characters, but the main characters aren't the joke themselves, which is important in any story aiming for more than belly laughs.
The comedy in this story divides into two primary categories: character-based humor, and parody (I guess equine naming humor as well, but that's a staple of most MLP fanfics). As I said above, the parody elements were of variable quality, though none stuck out as particularly atrocious. The biggest laughs, though, were lower-key. The sitcom-esque petty tribulations which AJ suffers offer an excellent blend of relatability and absurdity, and the interactions between the major characters at once felt genuine and were amusing in their own right. Few writers are able to convincingly pull off small talk without making it boring, but this story shows what a powerful tool it can be when used correctly.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
Despite the merely adequate "big" scenes, this story has a lot going for it. It's consistently funny, occasionally sweet (without ever abandoning its sense of humor), and is one of the only shipping/comedy stories I've read which works without making the shipping itself the joke.
Recommendation: I think most readers will find something to enjoy here. Even non-shipping fans will find that element of the story fairly inoffensive, and the comedy throughout is unfailingly funny.
Semper Fidelis (Warning: may contain spoilers for It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia):
Impressions before reading: Although this is tagged as a sequel to the story above, the author warns in a pre-story note that it's of a very different tone than the first piece. Apparently, it's more action/adventure and less humor. Action/adventure would be a pretty significant departure from the romantic comedy stylings of Fillydelphia, but I'm game to give it a go.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: After finally getting back in Spitfire's good graces, Soarin sets off for Sweet Apple Acres to see Applejack for the first time since the last story. When he arrives, Big Mac informs him that AJ is gone, and what was supposed to be a pleasant vacation quickly turns into a nightmare.
Thoughts after reading: This is indeed a completely different story from the first one. Anyone looking for more of the same will be disappointed (but hey, the author and I both gave you fair warning, didn't we?).
Unfortunately, Semper Fidelis can't seem to decide what it is that it wants to be. A classic romance? A high-voltage action story? An homage to 80's cartoon villainy? A serious deconstruction of the same? There are a lot of disparate elements here, and they don't work together terribly well.
The first of the story's five chapters sets a tone similar to Fillydelphia, though it makes clear that during a timeskip between fics things have gotten quite a bit more serious between Soarin and AJ. The interactions between Soarin, Big Mac, and Applebloom are full of character-based humor, though the jokes now primarily turn around the main characters' budding relationship. But from there, the story quickly gets out of hand. Desperate battle scenes and emotionally fraught interrogations vie with a romantic storyline which can't seem to decide whether it's a product of its characters' desperation or if it is indeed True Love™ before both are drowned out by an apocalyptic nightmare come to life.
The problem isn't that any of these things are particularly ill done (though as I said, the romance is murky in terms of both intensity and author intent). It's that they don't fit well together. There are certainly ways to combine romance, terror, action, etc., but they can't simply be thrown into a blender with one another and be expected to create a harmonious whole. The biggest problem with this story is that it varies so dramatically in tone as it goes along that it lacks any sense of cohesion.
I will add briefly, and say no more for the sake of spoilers, that this is technically a human in Equestria story. I know that's a nonstarter for some folks, but I didn't feel it was gratuitous or unnecessary in the context of the end-of-the-world storyline.
Also, though I guess this might fall under the "disparate elements" category of complaint, the appearance of the Doctor didn't work for me. Like so many other things in this story, it felt like an unwelcome intrusion from some other story, his banter and jury-rigged improvisations a poor match for either the darker elements of the story or the show-style portions. He wasn't poorly written in and of himself, but he served no larger role in the story.
Still, there were places where the fic managed to shine. Soarin's repeated improvisations in battle were always interesting to read about, and for the most part the fight scenes were remarkably suspenseful. The main villain was given some absolutely chilling dialogue, and Rainbow Dash provided a few chuckles near the end. But there was just no consistency of tone between any of those scenes; too often, my reaction to a new revelation was bemusement, rather than fascination.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
The writing remains top-notch in this story, and although it increasingly takes a backseat as the story progresses, Bobcat's casual dialogue is always a treat to read. And through the entire piece, many scenes and lines are individually well done. But they never combine into a coherent whole; this story feels like a jumbled mess more than anything else.
Recommendation: For anyone who can't handle wild swings in tone, or who is looking for a tightly plotted action story, this isn't what you're looking for. But readers willing to forgive the story for meandering from romantic comedy through horror on its way to high fantasy will find a lot of things to like here, as long as they're willing to do a little metaphorical fishing.
Next time: Tonight I Shall Be Laughter, by Cloud Wander