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Well, that was fun. Indulging in a bit of creative writing always seems to put me in a good mood. I think I'll try to leave a little more time for it from here on out (plus, I'm less than halfway finished drafting the story I was working on, and I'd hate to let it whither now that I've put in a good start on it). But for the moment, I'm ready to get back to reviewing. Which is good, because I enjoy that too! Below the break, my review of Dragryphon's Solar Flare.
Impressions before reading: I read this story after it was completed, and remember enjoying it well enough for what it was. I haven't read either of the sequels, however, and I won't be doing so now: the second story is currently being re-written, and the third is as yet incomplete. Once they're over and done with, I'll come back to them. For now though, it's just Solar Flare on the docket.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: The history of Celestia and Luna's early rule, and of the events leading up to and contemporaneous with Nightmare Moon's coming.
Thoughts after reading: This story uses an interesting framing device: it is the tale of Twilight reading a magical book, enchanted by Celestia's father to record the events of her and Luna's lives. But while the concept has some promise, this premise often proves detrimental to the story.
The fact is that the book which Twilight is reading doesn't sound much like a history at all. Where the book in question supposedly is magically chronicling the histories and achievements of the Royal Sisters, it often resorts to literary techniques which have no place in such a design. Perhaps the most notable of these was the use of narrative time in chapter two, when the story skips back and forth from a major battle to Nightmare Moon's strategy meetings. The fact that no more than a few paragraphs of the story cover the entire thousand years between the Nightmare's banishment and her return is similarly out of keeping with the framing device. Frankly, the story would have been much better if it had confined itself to the story of Luna's fall and the aftermath thereof, and if the central conceit had in fact been that it was, as the subtitle of the story suggests, "a survivor's eyewitness account of the War of the Night."
But once that is put aside, the story which it tells is intriguing. NMM origin stories are and always have been a dime a dozen, but most take one of two well-traveled routes: either they have Luna being taken over by some outside agency (and thus leave her essentially blameless), or they focus on how unappreciated she felt back then, and attempt to move from that to "the night shall last forever, bwa-ha-ha!" Here, Dragryphon enlists the aid of an outside force, it's true, but also makes sure to examine Luna's own culpability. Moreover, he takes the time to look at some of the psychological implications of what's going on. For some reason, few authors seem to consider the possibility of Stockholm Syndrome taking root in the case of a being held prisoner in its own mind, but this story gives some serious consideration to the emotional development of its main characters.
Unfortunately, the impetus for that emotional development is often overly short and simple. In fact, this feeling of ease and abruptness is pervasive throughout all parts of the story. To give an early example, Luna dreams up the idea of cutie marks, then tells her sister, who agrees it's a good idea. After testing the concept on themselves, Luna goes ahead and casts the spell over all of Equestria, giving every pony in the country cutie marks on the spot. Never mind that that's quite the feat of magic to pull off on a whim (even allowing for an in-story power boost); it seems like exactly the kind of thing that shouldn't be decided based on ten minute's conversation and without consulting anyone save one's sister. Over and over again, ponies make earth-shattering decisions or fundamentally alter the balance of the cosmos while showing all the careful consideration and planning that one might put into deciding whether or not to super size one's fast-food purchase.
More than once, I was put off by the seemingly rash decisions which ponies kept making, though it's true that part of this was the result of the framing device (yes, we're back to that again). No doubt the author was trying to keep his story from sprawling any wider than it already does--it weighs in at about 40,000 words--but showing more of the events and reasoning leading up to major decisions would have helped the story immensely.
The story's tone was a pleasant surprise, seeing as I go into most grimdark stories fearing the worst on that front. Despite a few missteps when attempting to inject some comedy into the proceedings (a scene involving Luna and moon pies comes to mind), the story as a whole succeeds in painting an Equestria much darker (and starker) than that of the show; one that in another context I might say was grounded in reality (I should also note for the grimdark-averse that this story isn't heavy on blood and guts, but has some awfully disturbing elements to it, both of military violence and of psychological torture). This story places a heavy emphasis on showing how good ponies can make bad decisions, and in this regard is a surprisingly honest look into how the smallest choices we make can shape not just our lives, but everything we know. This is one of the very few stories in which Celestia commits one or more morally questionable (okay, abhorrent) acts, and yet the setup and logic are such that those acts don't completely divorce her personality from what's seen on the show.
For the most part, there's not much to say about the writing. It was a little dry, but that proved a good fit for the story's style. In most other regards the writing was perfectly good, if not truly exceptional. Although some readers will probably find the beginning and end too tell-y for their tastes, I felt this was appropriate given the history-book setting. Context is important, after all, and while there may have been a better way to present it, the style used was in no way immersion-breaking for me.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
While there were some missteps when it came to framing the story and setting up some major plot points, the examination of those plot points shows a great deal of consideration. This is a solidly executed story overall, and in terms of fundamental concept may be one of the most thoughtful Nightmare Moon origin stories out there.
Recommendation: This is an excellent story for readers looking for a tale that both contains moral ambiguity on the part of Celestia and isn't completely divorced from canon. Fans of character backstories likewise will probably find this to be one of the better conceived ones, and the execution is certainly sufficiently adequate to not discourage such readers.
Next time: Moonspire Run, by TitanRising