Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: Bronies: For the Love of Ponies

(For the publisher's page/purchasing information, click here)

Well, here we are: the much-discussed Bronies: For the Love of Ponies is available for purchase, and Kazka Press offered me a reviewer's copy so that I could write it up.  I know there are a lot of people greeting this with extreme skepticism, and I don't blame them; can a short story anthology centered around "guys who love horses/ponies/an unnamed children's pony show" really be any good?  And after the theme was changed from "guys who love My Little Pony" to something more copyright-friendly, is there anything here of interest to the self-described MLP fan?  Well, I've read the stories, and I'm prepared to offer my opinions on the matter.  My thoughts, after the break.

Thoughts before reading:  I'm conflicted going in.  Considering that this collection is very explicitly not about guys who watch FiM, I'm understandably concerned that the "Bronies" title is just a marketing gimmick, and gimmick anthologies aren't usually much good.

On the other hand, one of the stories won a Nebula, and another was written by Michael H. Payne (probably better known to readers of ponyfiction as AugieDog, and best known in that context as the author of Half the Day is Night, a 6-star story on EqD which I've previously reviewed), who I know is capable of producing something I'll enjoy.  Those are two stories I'm especially interested to see.

Besides, I like the idea of supporting independent publishers like Kazka Press; at the risk of sounding like a pretentious hipster, the literary landscape is a richer place when it isn't limited to the big name publishers and the authors they're willing to front.  That doesn't mean I won't call a spade a spade, though; I'm hoping this will be good, but I've got a healthy dose of skepticism going in.

The bit that was originally the first few paragraphs of the review, but then I realized it had nothing to do with the anthology, but I think it's important to give some context, so I put it in its own section with a ridiculously long title:  *inhales*

At any given moment, I'm generally in the middle of half a dozen or more books, each segregated based on when and where I read it; I'll have a car book, a "the TV's on but I'm not really paying attention" book, a "serious reading time" book, etc.  Among these, the "right before I go to bed" book is one of the trickier ones to fill, since it needs to be something that I can read in relatively small chunks over weeks or even months without getting lost.  I've found that short story collections serve in this role admirably; as a result, I've read a lot of short stories over the years.

Short story collections come in two basic types: single-author collections, and anthologies.  Single-author collections are pretty predictable, insofar as you can usually tell after a couple of stories if you're likely to enjoy the rest.  But anthologies, where most or all of the works are written by different authors, almost invariably fluctuate wildly in tone and execution, and often in quality, from story to story.  So when I look at an anthology, I judge it based not so much on how good it is overall, but how many good stories I found in it versus how many really awful ones there were.

Anthologies are almost always themed.  Sometimes the theme is broad; "science fiction," or "stories set in ancient Rome," for example.  Other times, they can be remarkably specific.  I've found that the latter tend to be of lower overall quality, story-wise, than the former; whether this is because authors feel too constrained by the prompt, good authors tend to shy away from anything too restrictive, or for some other reason entirely, I can't say.  But regardless, I've had a lot of bad experiences with overly-specific anthologies (My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding comes to mind; a collection that I only picked up because Jim Butcher contributed to it, and I didn't even particularly like his story).  So in that regard, I'm actually a little heartened by the vague prompt; giving an author the latitude to write the story they want, and not the story the prompt demands, is often a good thing.

Review:  Let's start with the easy part: if you're looking for FiM-themed stories, this isn't the collection for you.  May I suggest you look through my 6-star reviews instead?  You'll probably find something more to your taste there, because Bronies is at best tangentially related to the show, or the fandom surrounding it.  But what about the stories themselves?  Does Bronies stand up as a collection, regardless of theme?  Let's look at some of the individual stories which make up the anthology.

To begin, the two stories I was most interested in when I first cracked open the book: Kij Johnson's Ponies and Michael H. Payne's Thoughts on Early Spring.  Where the former was concerned, I have to say I was underwhelmed.  The story wasn't bad by any stretch; it was extremely arresting, vivid in its visuals and biting in its social commentary.  But that commentary was so blunt and in-your-face that the story, such as it was, was overwhelmed by the relentless tide of thinly-veiled (or more often, totally unveiled) shots at pop culture, age and gender roles, and society in general.  It was the literary equivalent of Rent's Over the Moon; plenty to say, but so intent on saying it that nothing but message came through.

Thoughts on Early Spring, on the other hand, suffered nearly the opposite problem.  A surreal opening segment which was just confusing enough to hook the reader sadly did not translate into nearly as fulfilling a story as I'd hoped, simply because setup was the story.  I suspect if Mr. Payne had another few thousand words to work with something more satisfying could have been done with the two characters he primarily dealt with, but instead the entirety of the piece is spent introducing them and then... it's over.  I was happy enough with what I'd read, insofar as it went, but it felt woefully incomplete.

So, that's two "okays" out of fifteen stories.  Hardly a condemnation, but neither is it exactly a ringing endorsement.  What about the rest?

In the tradition of all multi-author collections, it varies from story to story.  What I can say is that there's not a single absolute dud in the group; even those stories which didn't resonate with me were interesting enough that I didn't feel cheated for having read them, and each had its redeeming features.  That might sound like faint praise, but it's more than I can say for many of the collections I've read in the past.  Editor L. Lambert Lawson deserves credit for ensuring that all of the pieces which make up Bronies are high-level, commercial-grade fiction.  It seems a small thing to ask, but I've seen enough collections fail on that count to recognize that it is indeed a significant accomplishment.

And it isn't all "good enoughs," either.  Several stories stuck out in particular as ones which I enjoyed.  Pete Butler's Larry the Magic Goddamn Talking Pony plays up the ridiculousness of its premise every bit as much as the title suggests, and crucially doesn't make the mistake of dragging on too long; only eight pages in length, it's a small but jam-packed bit of foul-mouthed absurdity.  Although westerns as a genre aren't really my thing, both Osgood Vance's Long in the Tooth and Kristy Buzbee's (who, by the way, has a wonderful last name) How Bacon Saved the Pony Express worked for me.  Despite being very different in tone (Tooth is horror, Bacon is drama with some comedy/fantasy elements), both took a simple premise and situation, coupled it with a single POV character, and showed clearly and succinctly how their respective unlikely twists played out.  And Gillian Daniels' The Girl Beneath the House applies a Houyhnhnmish turn to the well-known love little girls have for ponies, yet never feels excessively cliche.  Much like the better episodes of FiM, Daniels finds a way to retain the essential pony-ness of her characters, despite making them the apex race.

While those may have been the standouts so far as I was concerned, even the stories which were less to my taste were mostly enjoyable, insofar as that went.  The only story that really didn't work for me was Rance D. Denton's The Extinctionist, and even here I acknowledge that many readers will probably find its uncensored and graphic look at the interconnectedness of love and death very thought-provoking.  The combination of (deliberately) minimally-developed characters and use of vivid and uncomfortably explicit language and scenes is certainly attention-grabbing, but was too off-putting for me to really appreciate.

But if that's the heaviest condemnation I can level, it's definitely a good sign.  I said above that I judge anthologies based on the ratio of good stories to really awful ones.  Here, I found four real gems, and not a single clunker in the bunch.  In fact, there are only two stories here which I would say I didn't enjoy (The Extinctionist, along with Tod McCoy's My Way is the Way of the Pony; despite some very funny lines and individual scenes, My Way was too disjointed and unfocused for me to really get into), and even with them the problem was not so much the quality of the writing as it was my own tastes.  Top to bottom, this is one of the most solid anthologies I've ever seen.

Yes, I'm surprised too.  But what can I say?  This was a much better collection, with far fewer weak spots, than I expected.  In terms of overall content quality, Bronies is beyond reproach.

Recommendation:  As I stated at the start of the review, this isn't one to buy if you're looking specifically for stories about bronies, or about FiM.  But it's an extremely solid anthology, combining fifteen stories of which not a single one is unworthy of publication.  That's not to say that you, the prospective reader, will love every single one--I can't think of the last short story collection where I thought each and every piece was magnificent--but I suspect you're likely to find at least a few stories in here that will be to your liking.

Is it worth it, for fourteen bucks (nine if you buy the e-book)?  Well, I can't really answer that for you.  It depends on your financial situation and your willingness to invest in fiction.  But for someone looking for a good anthology to wend through, this is one I'd have no trouble recommending.


  1. I do hope you batted at least three eyelashes while using the word "Houyhnhnmish". You pretentious git, you. :V

    I'm still slightly miffed that they kept the title after ditching the theme. It does seem like a marketing gimmick, as though they're hoping big media will pick up on, "Look, this brony thing even inspired a book to come out!" and then it will sell like hotcake. But between your review and Phoe's, I may just have to swallow my grudge and check this out. Maybe the e-book, so I can save a few bucks. All I know is that I loved "Ponies", having read it some time before this anthology was announced, so there may be something to the whole thing. Thanks for a great review.

    1. I assure you that no eyelashes were batted in the making of this review; "Houyhnhnmish" is a great word, and I'm standing by it.

      Though apparently familiarity with any portion of Gulliver's Travels past Lilliput is no longer the norm among young adults. Try to drop "brobdingnagian" into any conversation with a group of high-schoolers and see how many eyes glaze over.

    2. Pfeh. I knew Brobdingnag before reading Gulliver. Granted, I don't actually remember what the Houyhnhnms were or did, besides having an impossible to spell name, but I did read that part. Once.

    3. I'll put my hand up and admit that it's all lost on me!

  2. For what it's worth, you've convinced me to buy the book. I had assumed that there might be one or two barely passable stories in a mass of cringe-inducing ones, but it sounds like I will enjoy quite a bit of it.

    Oh, and don't listen to Present Perfect; "houyhnhnmish" was a delightful word choice and conveyed your meaning succinctly... if unpronounceably.

  3. I'm ashamed to admit that I had to look up "Houyhnhnmish." I've never read Gulliver's Travels. You'd think it'd be required reading, but the only work of Swift's my class read was A Modest Proposal

    It's good to know The Extinctionists was one of the lesser stories. It really turned me off to the project. Unfortunately, your and Phoe's reviews haven't convinced me it's worth buying. The only one I'm really interested in reading is Larry the Goddamn Talking Pony

    It's just as well. I'll be too busy trying to get through Fallout: Equestria. I seriously hate you for convincing me to read that monster!

  4. Another on-target review, Chris!

    To be accurate, though, to tell the complete story about the characters from Thoughts on Early Spring took me another 45,000 words. Someday, I hope it'll all see the light of day...

    As for the rest of the anthology, I just wanted to mention my favorite, The Prognostiquestrian by Jamie Lackey. Talking ponies, wrenching interpersonal drama, and weather reporting, all wrapped up in one nifty little package!