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And with this fic we leave happy Luna behind, and move on into the realm of really freaking long stories. Stargate: Equestria, Past Sins, the Secret Tub Fun series... I've got a lot of reading to do if I'm going to keep up. But for now, you can read my review of ProBono's The Sock Swap, tastefully stowed behind the break.
Impressions before reading: This was my least favorite among the winners of the competition, though I admit that was mostly because the socks meme always seemed kind of stupid to me. So this time around, I'll try to leave my bias at the door; after all, Tonight I Shall Be Laughter showed that it's possible to incorporate memes into one's story without damaging the overall product. That said, I don't have a very good feeling about this.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Before her banishment, the highlight of Luna's year was always the Sock Swap. When she finds out that the annual holiday has died out during her absence, she sets out to revive it. Silliness ensues.
Thoughts after reading: The biggest potential pitfall when it comes to referential humor is that, rather than using it as a vehicle for a joke, many authors use it as the joke itself. There's nothing inherently funny about, say, Lyra being obsessed with humans or Derpy loving muffins. That doesn't mean one can't mine comedy from either of these premises, but too many authors will write a "comic" scene where Derpy flips out with excitement in the presence of a muffin, then sit back and say "my work here is done." The problem is, there's no joke there! At best, people will read the scene and say to themselves, "Heh, Derpy does like muffins in other media I've consumed." This should not be any author's idea of success. For further evidence as to why this kind of non-humor is bad, see Epic Movie, Date Movie, Vampires Suck... well, see pretty much anything by Friedberg and Seltzer. Or better yet, don't.
What surprised me about The Sock Swap, considering my impression after reading it the first time, was that ProBono almost never fell into this trap. "Luna really likes socks!" may not be funny in and of itself, but there are plenty of jokes that can be made about Luna and/or socks by way of her her obsession. And that's exactly what the author does, using the titular holiday not as a joke in and of itself, but as a means to deliver comedy. And there's plenty of comedy here.
This story is primarily a vehicle for crazy/random humor, and has no problem sacrificing believability for the sake of a pun (see: Pinkie with her favorite Star Trek action figure) or abandoning the plot, such as it is, to go fishing for a few laughs elsewhere (as when the narrative shifts to two guards having what I thought was a hilarious conversation about their names, which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story). This freneticism does generally keep the story from dragging (as is absolutely vital for any humorous story), but it also takes away from the more serious plotline going on concurrently involving Twilight's efforts to please the Princesses. While the latter is interesting in its own right, it's hard to take the conundrum the ponies face seriously when Luna's showing off her Mobius-strip socks or Dash is trying to perform a Sock-in Rainboom.
While characterization was somewhat subsidiary to comic necessity, I thought all the ponies were perfectly recognizable. Spike, on the other hand, didn't work for me. In his first appearance in the story, he played a welcome and humorous foil to the sock-obsessed ponies, but his subsequent arc was dull and uninspired. In a story like this, dullness is the one sin which cannot be tolerated, and though the author succeeded in most other places in avoiding it, Spike's sections just weren't particularly funny.
The writing was, for the most part, good but unremarkable. The one exception to this was an excessive use of proper nouns in the early going. The first five sentences of the story all refer to Celestia by name, for example, despite no other pony having been mentioned yet. I'm no fan of unclear pronouns, but the first couple of pages were an unrelenting wave of character names. Although overuse of names remained a feature throughout the story, it was dialed back to less silly levels before too long. Still, it's very noticeable in the early going.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
To its credit, this story is much better than I thought it would be going in. That said, it is marred by some inconsistencies of humor and writing quality. Moreover, there's another major pitfall of referential humor which I haven't mentioned: even when done well, it's still a brand of comedy that will turn off many readers before they even begin. Although this is a very funny story, I can't fault anyone who doesn't have any interest in a "Luna in socks" story for not reading this (or, if they do read it, for not enjoying it).
Recommendation: This story is far, far better than it has any right to be. I'll say it again: it is genuinely and consistently funny. But despite that, I can't say it transcends its memetic origins: readers who have no interest in a story about Luna's love of socks probably won't find anything here that will change their minds.
Next time: Stargate: Equestria, by Bosstone