(Somewhere Only We Know can be read here)
In this post, Sessalisk (author of Darkest Before Dawn and frequent depositor of long, rambling missives in the comments section of this very blog (much obliged for the regular insights, by the way!)) breaks down one of the better-known stories in this fandom. If you haven't read it already, you might want to before diving into this post: although it's (correctly, IMO) labeled a review, there's really no way to talk about the story without spoiling a lot of the effect of reading it the first time. Besides, Patchwork Poltergeist's Somewhere Only We Know is only a few thousand words. But whenever you're ready, you can read her thoughts below the break.
Now, I’m going to begin this with the caveat that it’s practically impossible to talk about this story without spoiling it. Even the story’s summary is a spoiler:
Every night in a little stable just outside of town, the mare lays down to sleep. And every night she has the same dream about her and her friends.
Any attempts to conceal the big juicy bits of this story would completely prevent discussion at all. So I’ll just say this now: if you want the full effect, you should read it before continuing. To those who don’t care or have read it already, carry on!
Many of you may already be familiar with this one. It certainly exploded with readers last June, and as its one-year anniversary came and went, it only seems fitting to give this an in-depth look.
It starts out with a scene of Rainbow Dash moving the all clouds around on a whim. As she puts it, the sky is a “perfect shade of blue.” This is a departure from the canonical workings of Equestria. In the show, pegasi are in charge of the weather; there are just as many examples of them causing rainstorms as sunny days. But here, and in this story, Rainbow Dash appears to be the sole arbiter of the clouds.
The prose in this section is florid, no bones about it. It goes on for several paragraphs about the subtle and magnificent beauty of skies in what some might consider to be excruciating detail. But in the middle of all of this, in all of the colourful description, it states chillingly, “There is no grey here.”
Soon after, Rainbow Dash goes on to comment about something that should be very obvious to anyone who watches the show, "I can do that because here I have wings. (I don’t know what I’d do without my wings. I don’t know how ponies without wings even live with themselves.)." She talks at length about being fast and how much she defines herself by her speed and the ability to fly, hammering in how emphatic she is about these things. At the same time, cryptically, she says that, “sometimes I even forget that I have wings, which is only the most ridiculous things ever. I mean, they’re only attached to my body; I was born with wings.” In the same paragraph, she goes on to recount the events of the sonic rainboom, giving a grisly account of what should’ve happened, how she should’ve died. And yet again, she says, “Bad things like that don’t happen here.” (Page 1)
Alarm bells should be going off like crazy.
Two pages later, there is an abrupt shift in perspective, from first-person to third-person limited. Even the font changes (in what some might say is a gimmick) from Garamond to Courier. If it’s not clear that something was wrong by now, then there is no helping you.
Over the next seven or so pages, the reader gets a grim account of an ordinary pony’s life, in what seems to be 19th century England. The mare in this section is old. She’s the only mare left at her master’s stable, and she’s seen absolutely awful things happen to all of her childhood friends. Though she used to be the fastest around, and while she used to take pride in her speed, even that has been taken from her, by injury, hard work and age. The sky is a constant grey.
She is broken.
And then, she lays down to sleep and Equestria comes to life around her once more, a place where she is young, where she is free to do as she pleases, and where she and all of her friends are alive and happy and whole. The story bookends itself with, “There is no grey here. Today the sun is shining. And my sky is a perfect shade of blue” (11).
Yeah, yeah, some of you may be saying. “It’s all just a dream!” is such a stupid cliché. You can slap that on anything and attempt to call it meaningful. That doesn’t mean it’s any good.
Not so fast, I say in response. While that may be true of a lot of things, it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss this one just yet.
If you’re not familiar with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, now would be good to bring up that Somewhere Only We Know is clearly inspired by it. You could even call the fanfic an expansion of the closing line, “My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees” (Sewell 291). [Having Black Beauty read to me as a young child left an indelible impression on me. I still remember how horrifying I found the depiction of the thoughtless treatment of the horses as toys or ephemera, rather than living beings, which Sessalisk touches on below. -Chris]
Everything from the setting to the treatment of the horses is drawn from that novel. For instance, take a look at a description of a bearing rein from Somewhere Only We Know:
The carriage pulled farther ahead, and Dash saw why Rarity hadn’t moved her head. It wasn’t because she wouldn’t, it was because she couldn’t. She was barely able to move her head at all.
Rarity wasn’t holding up her head from pride, it was held there by force. Her reins drew her neck backwards and her head way, way, way up so that her neck was in an almost perfect straight line. It was there to make Rarity look fancier, but it also made her exhausted. Looking closer, her breath was labored, often coming out in little short bursts and it made her cough. Dash wondered how it was even possible to pull when a pony was strained like that, especially a light and dainty pony like Rarity. She was never built for this kind of endurance. How she managed to bear it, Dash had no idea. (6-7)
And compare a similar description of the same device from Black Beauty:
I had been driven with a check-rein by the dealer, and I hated it worse than anything else; but in this place we were reined far tighter, the coachman and his master thinking we looked more stylish so. We were often driven about in the park and other fashionable places. You who never had a check-rein on don't know what it is, but I can tell you it is dreadful.
I like to toss my head about and hold it as high as any horse; but fancy now yourself, if you tossed your head up high and were obliged to hold it there, and that for hours together, not able to move it at all, except with a jerk still higher, your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it. (Sewell 48)
Thematically, however, the two stories are very different. Black Beauty, despite all its marketing towards children, was mainly written as propaganda to support the better treatment of working animals and the lower class. It was there to say, “Hey, we treat horses like crap. It’d be kinda nice if we stopped that, guys.”
In modern fiction, this is a moot point. Many of the criticized practices in the book have long-since been abolished, or are now at least highly-regulated (bearing reins, animal cruelty laws, and such). To harp on them would be beating a dead horse... so to speak. All things considered, Rainbow Dash’s owner doesn’t even seem to be that bad.
Unlike Black Beauty, this fanfic is not a commentary on animal welfare. The sticking point of Somewhere Only We Know is not just the treatment of horses, but also the situation itself — the drabness of the world, the inescapable nature of servitude, the dull resignation of finding one’s place in life, and finding it’s shitty as all hell.
We enter the story at a point in Dash’s life where everything is already unpleasant. She is old; her hurt leg keeps her from running; all her friends have been sold off to other people; and if she ever sees them, they’ve been horribly mistreated. We aren’t given a look at grieving process because all of this has already happened and moreover, she’s accepted it. The narrative doesn’t harp on any one bad thing (possibly because there are so many of them). It’s clear that Dash still cares about her friends and misses them, but she does not angst about it, “Dash flicked an ear and nickered at the thought of her old friend. She wondered what the mare was doing now. It had appeared as if the mare’s new master had gotten her for his children. Dash hoped that was the case, her friend would have liked that at a lot” (5). For context, this is about Pinkie Pie getting sold off to another owner.
It’s not that the narration is detached, so much as it is matter-of-fact. It’s almost saying that this is the end of the story, these are the things that have happened and there is nothing that can be done about it. That’s life. It sucks and you move on. To put it in layman’s terms, Somewhere Only We Know isn’t focusing on the sucky part to gutpunch the readers. It’s about the “moving on”.
Tragedies invoke pathos by creating a scenario where the reader can empathize with the characters or the circumstances. On top of that, the vast majority of “sadfics” like to do this through death or loss (you could probably spend days listing off the fanfics where characters — especially Spike or the royal pony sisters — mope about the ones they have outlived). This is where Somewhere Only We Know differs from stories like Bittersweet or Nocturne. That’s not to say that there is no loss here, but the people and things Rainbow Dash has lost are not the focus of the story. The important thing to take away from it isn’t that everything is a dream, or that good things have come and gone. The sadness of this is drawn from the coping mechanisms she uses to deal with life itself.
It is a commentary on escapism.
This leads us all back to why we read fiction, fanfiction, in the first place. Many people are willing to tolerate what might be defined as “utter tripe” in order to get more of something that they love, to experience this world in a way that would be fun or uplifting or inspiring. The whole purpose of a good chunk of science fiction and fantasy is to let imagination take you where life cannot.
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to say this is an intentional potshot at the human in Equestria stories, but one can certainly see the similarities. Here it’s Dash who imagines herself in Equestria to escape the bleakness of her life, to be together with all her friends again in a place where she has control over her own place in the world.
And therein lies the tragedy of the story. We not only get an uncomfortable look at Equestria, but one of ourselves.
If I had to be fair, the story could have definitely used more editing, or at least proofreading. There were a few nonstandard usages of grammar and punctuation, but the majority of them could be excused as artifacts of Dash’s first-person narration. However, even with those in mind, the first page alone has at least one missing comma and missing word, “At sunset my world orange and red and yellow”. There are also issues with repetitive wording, “and in its wake sunlight streams down all around me and I trail rainbows in my wake”, “I fell, this one time. A long time ago, I fell”. There are homonym mixups, “behind me rainbows peeled out across the sky”. And there are sentences that just don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, even with the conclusion in mind, “Far away from grey skies and bad vibrations.”
Still, I’d say the strength of the ideas here outshines many of its technical issues. The editing got better as the story went on, and most of the mistakes didn’t impair reading too much (at least the first time I went through it). At no point did I sit back and say, “lol. Did someone really write that?”. In the end, I would still rather have one very flawed story that pushes the envelope on fanfiction than fifty trite stories, perfectly proofed and perfectly edited.