Monday, June 11, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 76: My Faithful Student

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

To start, a brief explanation for why I'm skipping Secret Tub Fun, despite saying otherwise last post: I'd read the first six, and thought that the stories were all loosely connected at best.  So, I figured I could review what was already written and it would stand alone just fine.  Turns out that there's now an overarching plot, and the author still has two "chapters" to go before the story's complete.  So, I'm holding off on that for now and moving on to PhantomFox's My Faithful Student.

And in non-pony news (those of you who aren't professional cycling fans can skip down to the review now), the statuses of Andy Schleck and Thomas Voeckler for the TDF are uncertain after they both withdrew from the Dauphine due to a crash and knee trouble respectively, and Thor Hushovd is going to be out with a viral infection.  That's my favorite racer, my second-favorite big-name contender (after his big brother Frank), and my favorite sprinter, all out or in doubt.

I sure can pick 'em, eh?

Impressions before reading:  Based on what I remember of this story from a previous reading, I'd say it's one of the better episode-style stories out there.  I also remember that I liked the author's best-known story, Sunny Skies All Day Long, slightly better... but I really enjoyed that story, so that's hardly a knock going in.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Celestia arranges for Twilight to compete in the annual Unicorn Arcane Arts competition, but Twilight's tendency to take such things a little too seriously quickly gets her in trouble.

Thoughts after reading:  Contrary to what many readers and beginning authors seem to believe, writing a fanfic which hews closely to the conventions and tone of MLP (aka "episode-style stories") is quite difficult.  The simple fact is that written stories and television shows are two different mediums, and translating the style of one to the other is a task fraught with peril.  It's no coincidence that the best movie adaptations of books are often the ones which don't dogmatically cling to their source material, however much that may annoy fans of the original work.  Likewise, many of the best fanfics tell a story which differs in tone, structure, and pacing from what we'd expect to see on the TV show, sometimes drastically.

But although it may be a difficult task, PhantomFox was clearly up to the challenge.  My Faithful Student is about as close as any writer could hope to come to writing a story which preserves the FiM aesthetic while still being a good story in and of itself.

As the phrase "about as close" may suggest, however, the attempt to preserve the show's pacing and setup was occasionally to the fic's detriment.  Important story elements are occasionally brought up only to be instantly dealt with or dismissed, which suits a fast-paced visual medium better than it does the written word (though whether some of the off-the-cuff inclusions in the show work even in that setting is debatable).  Likewise, the introductions of several plot points were sorely lacking in subtlety; while this didn't really hurt the story, it did give the entire piece a "basic" feeling which I found unfortunate.

Still, if that's the worst I can say about the story's adherence to its chosen style, that's saying something.  The entire piece is full of the show-style humor that so many of the adult fans love, and like the show itself, Student is refreshingly sincere in both its presentation and the lessons it strives to impart.

Characterization was mostly very good.  The author's interpretation of Celestia was a little too excitable for my taste (I'm inclined to think that her first scene in the story might have worked better from both a character and a story perspective had she been calm and collected (at least in front of her subjects), rather than obviously panicked), but I didn't find it at all unbelievable.  The depiction of Pinkie was one I quite enjoyed, which was a pleasant surprise; she's often my least favorite character to read about, because so many authors amp up her randomness and/or self-awareness to distressing heights.  Here, she was wacky and over-the-top, but she was still definitely Pinkie Pie.

The writing style was simplistic, but this I generally found to be in the service of the story.  While Twilight's dialogue moved towards more advanced word choice, the rest of the piece tended to maintain a level of word choice more appropriate to the show itself.  But although it may have felt appropriate, the one issue I repeatedly noticed on the technical front was likely a result of this: repetitive word choice.  Although this story generally lacked conceptual redundancy, a number of times the same word was used several times within a few sentences.  While the level of repetition was never absurd, it was definitely noticeable.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

Although the simplistic word choice and attempts to match the pacing of a piece of visual media occasionally created issues, these were relatively minor.  What remains is one of the few stories in this fandom that could actually be re-written as an episode with relatively little work.  "This could be an episode" is a bit of praise that gets tossed around all too often, but in this case it's absolutely true.

Recommendation:  Anyone who likes the show should read this story.  Since I expect that most readers of MLP fanfiction are also viewers of the show, that's basically a blanket recommendation.  No matter what one's literary preferences, I have trouble imagining the fanfic reader who wouldn't find something to like in here.

Next time:  The Light in the Darkness, by Zaptiftun


  1. First, let me start with the bad. The prose at times is a little dry and so some parts lose their punch. My biggest complaint has to be the pacing or more accurately “expansion where it is unneeded or lack of it where there should be more.” Some parts feel way too brief and because of that, I don’t feel settled in by the time their finished (I’m thinking of at the library when Spike wakes up from all the noise Twilight creates and the Arcane competition itself). Other parts are just too long (for example, the opening at Baltimare I would have cut entirely, it adds nothing to the plot or the characters and just slows things down) and even though this about two thousand words longer than “Sunny Skies”, it feels way longer than that overall. I’m also of two differing opinions about the contest. On one hand, not including it would have been a really bad idea because the reader has been reminded about this throughout the fict. On the other hand, because of Celestia and Twilight’s talk pretty much ends the story’s main conflict (Twilight’s neglect of her well-being), everything after feels like a resolution that’s gone on too long. And that talk is also a little on the hammy side not to mention how Celestia was informed about Twilight’s mishap was pushing it (I wouldn’t call it De Ex Machina but it doesn’t feel believable).

    Now for the good. I really liked the premise of this one. I know I’ve been in a number of situations where I disregarded my social life and health because something engrossed my attention, so this story had something that I could relate to, which pushes it above a lot of others. Now admittedly, part of that may have been because Twilight was the main character and I associate with her more than the rest. In addition, this also felt much like an episode. Now truth be told, that’s a double-edged compliment because I saw a lot of certain episodes in this fict, in particular (and this isn’t PhantomFox’s fault considering the release dates) I was reminded of “Lesson Zero”, one of my least favorites. Thankfully, a number of things that I disliked about that episode (a number of the gags, Twilight’s friends ignoring her problem) were not in this fict. Instead, this in some ways felt like “Lesson Zero” done right, thanks the lack of the above as well as the better use characters, by keeping them in character and not reducing them to nothing but gags (at least thinking that). Speaking of the gags, a number did make me laugh such as Pinkie and coffee. As a final positive note, the ending made me smile widely.

    And given all that above, I don’t think it’s hard for me to call this one of my favorites. Yes, it has flaws but I always felt like this was on the same tier as “Sunny Skies All Day Long” and I think it’s a shame it doesn’t get even half as much attention (or at least it seems). Oh well, can't win them all.

  2. First, I'm glad you're holding off on Secret Tub Fun, not only because I can't stand where that fic went, but also because, thanks to this review, I got to read one of the best fics I've seen in quite a while. I still can't believe I missed this one the first time around.

    Just like Bugs above me, I noticed a lot of similarities between Lesson Zero and this story. Unlike him, however, I love Lesson Zero, and so having the story unwittingly use many of the same plot points as that episode just made a good story even better. The characters were all used well, I loved caffeinated Pinkie Pie, and the resolution was a bit unbelievable, but still handled well.

    If I had any real complaint, it was with the reference to Sunny Skies All Day Long PhantomFox just threw in there at the end. Don't get me wrong, Sunny Skies is one of the best pony fanfics I've ever read, but it just felt rather out-of-place all things considered. Still, that's just a minor quibble compared to everything else that works.

    Thanks for helping me find a new story to add to my favorites.

    1. To be honest, by the end I couldn't stand Secret Tub Fun either, and I wrote the stupid thing. I pretty much disliked writing everything after Part 6, and feel I could have (and should have) done much better.

      At least I got Jelly Donut out of it.

  3. Ah yes, this was a good one. I encourage anyone who enjoyed this and Sunny Skies to also take a look at No Tame Forest, the author's other often-overlooked fic. It's got a different sort of feel to Skies and Student, but is still fairly episode-like.

  4. I don't think Frank ever really posed any threat to the Tour favourites. His form has been so-so since his return, unfortunately. Andy on the other hand... I hope he can make a recovery because oh boy does he make for some exciting racing! Still, I'm just watching Cadel's descent from a few days back and whispering how everything is going according to plan.

    Shame about Voeckler, though. Get back on that bike, boy! We need an underdog to take yellow to keep things interesting!

    1. Cadel's been in rare form lately. He's gotta feel good about where he's at right now, and it looks like he'll have a team capable of supporting him. I won't complain if he pulls it off.

      As for Frank... he's been spotty so far, but both of the Schlecks have shown in the past that they can get hot fast. I'm holding out hope.

  5. >complain about repetitive word choice
    >use the phrase "word choice" three times in three sentences in the complaining paragraph

    Tell me that was intentional. :V

    1. My bad, three times in two sentences.

    2. When I re-read my post before it went up, I noticed that. But for some reason, I found it too amusing to change. Whether it's actually funny or just stupid, I leave to you. For myself, I'm inclined to say it's both (but mostly stupid).

  6. Well, I for one didn't like Sunny Skies, so it's probably no surprise that I didn't like this either. I wouldn't label it as unoriginal just because it's a blatant mashup of Applebuck Season and Lesson Zero, but because it doesn't add anything to that original concept. There are lots of ways to tell a story, sure, but you actually have to do something different, and I really didn't feel this had anything new going for it.

    Additionally, it's one of those stories that I have oft described as being like having a concept balanced on your nose and then beaten into your skull with a cricket bat. Subtlety is the difference between a story and a collection of ideas that feel like they're arranged by someone who's crap at tetris. If those ideas are good, the end result might be passable, but when they're mediocre, the bad ideas stand out like a sore thumb. Naturally, what passes as good and bad ideas are down to the individual, but from 'spellslip' to Pinkie-on-coffee and Celestia's bizarre characterisation, there was barely anything that worked for me.

    In fairness, I remind everyone that I'm a miserable old coot. I still give it a 1 out of 5 though; it may be mostly in the style of the show, but some of the episodes were pap too.

  7. In my defense, I must point out that this was written before Season 2 started, so any similarities to Lesson Zero are completely unintentional. Regardless, it IS a bit similar to Applebuck Season, but I mixed in some other elements as well from other episodes.
    The key scene that this fic was based around was Celestia comforting a distraught Twilight. I view their relationship as very much mother/daughter than anything else, and I found that moment to be very powerful.
    The pacing is a tad fast, on reflection, but I guess this unconsciously is a reflection of my desire to imitate the show. I drew up an episode idea, played it through my head, and transcribed what I saw. And since the show is 22 minutes long, my mental screenplays are the same length, because anything else is venturing off the path I'm familiar with. Perhaps something to consider for whenever I get off my duff and resume work on my piece on Fluttershy's Mindscape.
    Word choice, yeah, I'm guilty of that. No coincidence that issue came up in SSADL as well. Celestia being excitable, well, I can see that, but in all fairness, my intent was that this was a rather large emergency. Twilight is one of the strongest magic users around, and when she turns herself into a magical bomb...
    My biggest concern was the competition scene, as the resolution came around already, but the competition still had to be addressed. I addressed it as best I could and tried to turn it into a CMOA. We'll see what the jury thinks. As for the resolution being unbelievable? I'm not sure I understand that one. I included both Twilight having coffee and Pinkie's reaction to it beforehand, no? Lastly, 'Sunny' being at the competition mainly came about when wondering about potential influence on the judges. Perhaps it wasn't necessary perse, but I liked it. If it didn't work... well, lesson learned.

    Thanks for all the critique, and perhaps I'll incorporate it in my next piece, whenever I get around to finishing it.

    P.S. I'm surprised no one else here has caught the Okami reference yet.

    1. Well I'll put my hand up and accept my comparison with Lesson Zero was therefore unjustified. Regurgitating one episode alone for a different character is a fairly reasonable idea, so I apologise for making the assumption.

      I do sympathise entirely with the problem of pacing a show-esque story. When I ran into it, I let the format I was using (long chapter-based story) take priority, and changed the story layout to accommodate. Can't say if it's worked until it's finished though, then you vultures get to pick mine apart...

    2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, PhantomFox. As for the bit about Celestia's believability: I didn't find her unbelievable, it's just that her interpretation here doesn't really match my mental image of her. Although it's not how I'd have written that scene, I didn't think Celestia being panicked over Twilight's magicsplosion was out of character. Good luck with your next piece, whenever you get around to it!

  8. I rather enjoyed both this and Phantom's previous fic; I love the sort of light-hearted and humorous plots that both of these displayed.

    *grabs some popcorn and sits to watch just how badly the next fic will be torn up*

    1. I keep doing that, but Chris has a bad habit of being terribly tolerant of the ones I really dislike.