Wednesday, June 20, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 79: Blueblood Returns

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

I don't know why people use the expression "would you like some cheese with that whine?"  Personally, I'd much rather have a porter or oatmeal stout with my cheese--maybe it's the midwesterner in me speaking, but beer seems like a much more intuitive match for dairy than wine does.

My review of Geldon's Blueblood Returns, Blueblood's Redemption, and The Blueblood Conspiracy, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  This set is actually something I was exposed to via ponychan, and I chatted at some length with the author about his stories over there.  I've read all three, and I remember thinking the second was quite good (better than the first and third anyway, for different reasons).  I encouraged him to write a fourth at the time to address some problems I (and others) had with The Blueblood Conspiracy, though I don't think he ever got beyond concept stage with that.

NOTE:  The top review is only of Blueblood Returns.  The other stories are done separately below.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Determined to restore his "good" name following the debacle at the Grand Galloping Gala, Blueblood travels to Ponyville to woo Rarity.  Spike is sure he's up to no good, but the other ponies are convinced he's just jealous.  <insert stock rhetorical question here>

Thoughts after reading:  As I mentioned in my review of My Faithful Student, writing a story which maintains the tone and narrative structure of an actual episode is difficult.  Blueblood Returns aims to accomplish exactly this, with mixed results.

Although the story generally captures the humor and overall aesthetic of the show, it struggles with pacing.  Part of the problem is simply length; there's a very straightforward conflict with no real side-plots, and giving every single one of Rarity's friends their own "scene," each two or three pages long, quickly became repetitive.  Another hindrance was the writing style: while I had no particular aesthetic issues with the author's tendency towards verbosity in principle, it didn't mesh well with the story being told.  A simpler, more straightforward approach to sentence structure might have reinforced the "episode-style" feeling, while the way it was actually written discouraged such thinking.

Hampering the writing further, there were some flaws in the piece on a technical level. An overuse of commas where heavier-duty punctuation was needed resulted in many run-on sentences: "Though he said that, he had clearly seen better days, his outfit had gained a few tears and he was sporting visible bruises," to give one example of a comma dragooned into performing in the stead of a semicolon. A significant number of homophone mixups and errors from the which/than category of mistakes were problematic, but never impinged on readability.

Still, it was clear that a fair amount of care had been put into the structure of the narrative itself, and this did pay dividends. Each time there was a break, the lines immediately following and preceding it contained mirrored wording in disparate contexts, a bit of structural humor I never tired of. And although pacing may have been an issue, the plotline really did have an episodic feel to it; considering how often he gets ignored in the show, Spike seems to me a natural candidate for the role he was cast into in this story. Each of the major ponies was vividly characterized (with the exception of Twilight, though this had more to do with her relatively small, vanilla role than anything else), and Blueblood was as hammy and over-the-top as anyone could ask for. The story may have painted with broad strokes, but it hit its mark each time.
Star rating:  (what does this mean?)

Although this story does drag in places, it's a pretty good attempt at an episode-style story. It has vivid, cartoonish characters involved in a simple but servicable conflict, and contains enough character- and language-based humor to keep readers entertained.

Recommendation: Readers who enjoy fanfics which stick pretty close to the source material will probably enjoy this one quite a bit. Others might also chose to give it a look; although the writing and pacing are sub-prime, the other story elements are handled well.

Blueblood's Redemption: [may contain spoilers for Blueblood Returns]
Zero-ish spoiler summary: After being humiliated yet again, Blueblood decides that his only recourse is to abandon his royal duties altogether, and search for the freedom his position had denied him to date.

Thoughts after reading: Let me start out by saying that this story is absolutely nothing like Blueblood Returns in tone. Blueblood's Redemption may be a direct sequel in terms of events, but in it the author abandoned the episodic conceit, and this proved to be to the story's benefit.
Geldon gives himself a difficult task: to turn Blueblood into a sympathetic character. This would be hard enough based on the show alone, but given his actions in the previous story it would seem a formidable challenge. Yet he manages exactly that, and this is both the greatest strength and most glaring weakness of the fic.
First, the good: far, far too many redemption tales seem to forget that in order to be redeemed, their target must be genuinely in error to begin with. Many such stories take Trixie or whoever (but usually Trixie) and try to justify her actions by making everything she did wrong in Boast Busters the result of a tragic misunderstanding or a comedy of errors in which she's ultimately blameless. Another common pitfall is to try to use tragedy as a cheap way to evoke sympathy. While I have no problem with a story where Trixie or whoever's (but again, usually Trixie's) parents died when she was a foal, that alone is no substitute for characterization, nor does it in and of itself "explain" why she acts the way she does. Finally, many authors seem to take redemption as carte blanche to re-write the character in question (Trixie, perhaps?) from the ground up, abandoning any character traits they find inconvenient and substituting something far blander in its place.
In this story, the author shows how to do redemption right. Blueblood is never anything but insufferable and arrogant, yet he does grow throughout the story, learning how to interact with those around him and beginning to break the mold he's been cast in since childhood. On a related note, the way he slowly gains awareness of others as individuals rather than just as useful tools, and eventually develops a genuine if nascent sense of empathy, was very well done; gradual, consistently amusing, and genuine because of, rather than despite, its incompleteness. And although his actions, both on the show and in the previous story, are explained, they're never brushed aside or justified; Blueblood may have had his motivations, and they may even have been ones which the audience could sympathize with, but there was never any suggestion that that by itself made everything "okay."
Unfortunately, the implications of Blueblood's backstory are pretty horrifying. To his credit, the author addresses this directly, rather than ignoring it and hoping the audience wouldn't pick up on the tragedy of Blueblood's situation, yet this doesn't make it any less disturbing. While I don't want to say too much (spoilers and whatnot), Blueblood has basically had no control over his own life up to the start of this story. That's not to say he couldn't have taken some control, of course; the impetus for the entire plot is him demonstrating exactly that. But the idea here is very clearly that Blueblood need not have been miserable, and need not have inflicted so much misery on others, save for the caprices fate (with an assist from [REDACTED--SPOILERS]).
Moreover, the characterization given to Celestia by the epilogue is one I find troubling. Painting her as a manipulator of the highest caliber ruled by a belief that the ends justify the means is so completely at odds with how I (and most people, I believe) view the princess that I had trouble accepting it. While she's still clearly acting for the greater good in this story, her personal sense of morality becomes very murky. Perhaps that's fitting for an immortal monarch (if God moves in mysterious ways, why can't she?), but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. All that said, the surprisingly nuanced moral of the story, such as it is, was one I thought very thought-provoking. While I may not agree with Celestia's decisions, I would venture to say that her justifications are worthy of consideration.

As with the first story, characterizations were vivid and humor was consistent. Since the story deals primarily with two of the most over-the-top characters from the show, I found the inclusion of two straight men in the form of Blueblood's guards to be a welcome addition; they provided just enough grounding in "reality" to keep the whole story firmly planted in terrain wherein its conflict could be taken seriously, despite the antics of the main characters.

The writing quality was similar to the first story, save for the welcome fact that most of the homophone issues were absent here. Additionally, the writing style proved a better fit for the tale being told here than in Returns, making it seems stronger by comparison.
Star rating:  (what does this mean?)

Although both Celestia's attitude and Blueblood's upbringing left unpleasant tastes in my mouth, it's clear that the author considered the implications of each, and never shied away from exploring those.  Redemption stories are easy to write "well enough," but difficult to truly write well; this one succeeds in the seemingly unlikely task of making Blueblood sympathetic while still being a satisfying story in its own right.

Recommendation:  While I would definitely recommend reading Blueblood Returns before this, I doubt any reader would have trouble picking up on what they missed.  That said, anyone who doesn't mind a bit of controversial but respectful moralizing in their stories will probably find that Blueblood's Redemption has a lot to offer.

The Blueblood Conspiracy: [most definitely contains spoilers for the first two]

This one's tough to talk about without ruining the entire fic, so let's start with the easy parts.  The story proper follows close on the heels of Blueblood's Redemption, and shares many properties with it.  The technical and writing aspects were pretty much the same between the two, and the characterizations (excepting the specific character and aspects I'm respectively going to touch on below) were of similar quality.  The two big differences were my tolerance for Celestia's portrayal, and the author's take on Elemental Recession.

In the case of Celestia, my major problem wasn't with how she acted (though I did find that troubling), but with how other ponies reacted to her.  In Blueblood Returns, she cops to in essence ruining Blueblood's entire life for the "greater good."  However, the only people to hear this confession are two of the royal guards; presumably, fealty to the princess is high on the list of qualities looked for among job applicants in that field.  In this story, she continues to act in a blatantly manipulative way, causing serious mental and emotional harm to pretty much everyone in the story.  Again, this is all done in order to bring about the best possible outcome.

Now, I may not believe that the ends justify the means thus, and I may not think that's a character interpretation that fits Celestia very well, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that the author takes a very measured, nuanced, and surprisingly thoughtful approach to showing how this fits with his story.  However, many of the characters eventually become aware of some or all of Celestia's manipulations, and it really did bother me that not a single one of them ever seemed to seriously question that Celestia was doing the right thing.  This kind of broad blanket concession that her actions were justified partially robs the story's moral of its nuance, by making it less a matter of interpretation and more one of accepted knowledge.  It's true that the message itself was fairly tempered, but the presentation strayed too far into the field of received wisdom for my taste.  Even if I were more sympathetic to that message, I'd prefer to see a less one-sided approach to showing it.  When even the elements of Honesty and Loyalty don't see any problem with lying and manipulating those closest to you, that seems to me a serious failure of characterization.

Then, there's the matter of Elemental Recession.  This was the author's take on Cutie Mark Failure Insanity Syndrome, a (at one point) much-discussed theory which suggested that any pony prevented from acting on their special talent would suffer severe temporary psychological trauma.  While CMFIS was used to explain things like Pinkie's actions in Party of One, it wasn't without plenty of flaws.  Personally, I found the author's more specific and targeted take on the idea to be in keeping with what was seen in the show, at least prior to S2, but I doubt all readers will take readily to the idea.  CMFIS was fairly controversial at one point, and I suspect not everyone will be willing to readily accept the addition of Elemental Recession.

Star rating: (what does this mean?)

The biggest problem with this story compared to Blueblood's Redemption is the almost dogmatic acceptance of the justification for, and morality of, Celestia's actions.  Still, many of the things which Redemption did right were also pulled off here: the humor was consistent without preventing or overwhelming serious moments, and both Trixie and Blueblood remain sympathetic without abandoning their defining characteristics.

Recommendation:  For any reader who made it through the first two and wasn't disappointed, I'd suggest continuing on to The Blueblood Conspiracy.  It may be weaker than Redemption, but many of the things that made that story work are also present here.  But if you were bothered by Celestia's portrayal in the previous story, you might want to skip this one; Geldon's Princess is very definitely one who believes in her own ultimate authority, both moral and legal, and isn't afraid to explore the full extent of those beliefs.

Next time:  Fallout: Equestria, by Kkat


  1. Fallout Equestria already?! Oh boy. This should be good fun!

  2. I know I rattle this sabre a lot, and I'm pretty comfortable with that, to be honest, but with just the most basic understanding of philosophy anyone will know that hurting people through manipulation is NEVER the best outcome. While there are very reasonable grounds for assuming that Celestia isn't as good and virtuous as she is shown to be (apparent immortality can be a bitch), she also wielded all six Elements of Harmony at one point. If you don't take that into account when you write her, then you may as well just start changing characters on a whim. I don't buy it, never have, never will. The show is based on harmony, and Celestia is depicted as the pinnacle of that, from the show's camera, at least. Disregard this at your own peril, or break out the grimdark/alternate universe tags.

    Anyway, Chris, are my eyes going strange (or my brain, more likely), or are you playing font-size roulette during this review?

    1. Yeah, that happens sometimes when I cut-and-paste quotes and then forget to fix the formatting. Should be all better now (he writes, two weeks later).

  3. I get the feeling that the next week or so is going to involve a lot more blog posts and a lot less story reviewing, considering how long it takes to read FOE, lol.

    1. Since Chris is away on holiday, yes it'll be a couple of weeks. Guest posts for the next 4 or 5 updates.

  4. I remember reading these like about six-months ago and quite frankly I didn't enjoy them. I just didn't find them funny enough (the exact reasons I don't remember). Reading the first one again, one technical aspect that did bother me here (but is not mentioned in this review) can be seen in this line.

    'Rarity smiled, "But of course, Applejack. Would you be so kind as to explain the nature of the courtship trial here."'

    Look unless it's a character from Wonderland, they should not be 'smilling' words. There were a number of cases where a word that should not be used for direct speech was used as such and this is one pet peeve of mine that I emphasize when it comes to writing. I also thought some of the characterization seemed off with Rarity. The show always left me with the impression that she wanted nothing to do with Blueblood again and she seemed a little too quick to wanting to give him a second chance here.

    I would have read the other two again but Chris's decision to move up "Fallout:Equestria" (that fict is going to get one long review from me) more or less made me switch my focus (hence the light comment here).

  5. It's not about what goes well with the cheese, but what would go well with wine

  6. I love Blueblood redemption fics. I was, however, slightly dismayed to see the mention of recontextualized dialogue across scene changes. I edited another Blueblood redemption fic that did the exact same thing. D: