Wednesday, July 11, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 82: On a Cross and Arrow

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

While I have no intention of injecting politics into this blog (that goes for the comments too, please), I have to ask: who thought it would be a good idea to name Mitt Romney's former private equity firm Bain Capital?  I mean, I suppose it was probably someone's name, but did nobody ever say, "Hey guys, 'bane' has some kinda sinister connotations, maybe we should call our company something that doesn't suggest we're a merciless enactor of wanton destruction?"  It just seems to me like the equivalent of calling your restaurant "Nausea."

Anyway, Conner Cogwork's On a Cross and Arrow, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  I've reviewed two stories by the author previously: Ah Ain't Got No Ack-cent! and Crimps and Prance.  While I thought both were conceptually solid, they were also absolute messes to read.  I really hope that Conner's editing improved between those stories and this one.

As for the premise?  It sure doesn't seem like something with a lot of promise; "gimmicky" is how I'd be inclined to describe it, with the potential to be mind-numbingly, painfully stupid if handled poorly.  But I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt going in, based on his previous track record in that regard.  Even the strangest setups can be made to work if properly executed, after all.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  While trying out a new type of teleportation spell on herself and her friends, Twilight accidentally sends them all to a completely different universe.  Well, maybe not completely different; the only thing that separates the world they find themselves in from the Equestria they know and love is that the gender of every pony is reversed.

Thoughts after reading:  Since editing was perhaps the biggest problem with the previous stories by the author which I've read, let me start by saying that On a Cross and Arrow is miles ahead of them on that front.  That's not to say the technical aspects of this piece were good--they weren't, especially--but it was never a chore to parse the author's meaning from a pile of homophones, mangled punctuation, and oddly constructed sentences.  That's always a good start.

However, there are still a lot of misplaced commas, and other strange punctuation choices.  Coupled with some poor/inconsistent decisions on how to show emphasis (character thoughts are alternately marked by italics, secondary quotation marks, or asterisks, for example, while inflection is tagged with italics, underlines, or capitalization (both of the entire word and of the first letter only) at turns), the whole piece comes across as very messy.  Totally readable, but messy.

The writing quality is similarly functional, but lackluster.  Word choice is repetitious throughout, and voicing is sometimes variable.  Giving Dash lines like "I'm a bit annoyed," and "Sorry I've not been 'round a lot" doesn't fit her speech patterns on the show; in fact, the only pony likely to say "I've not" is probably Pipsqueak (and maybe Rarity when she's being melodramatic).  In addition to this, Applejack's accent is inconsistently rendered.  While I prefer that authors err on the side of underwriting accents, I have no real problem with thicker ones as long as they're readable and uniform.  When "I" is rendered as "Ah" only part of the time, that's when I really take exception as a reader.  Sadly, that was often the case here.

A final note on the writing front: this story contains some really absurd LUS (lavender unicorn syndrome, aka. fear of proper names and pronouns).  An occasional "the demure pegasus" in place of "Fluttershy" is one thing, but when the story starts regularly referring to its characters as "the yellow one" and "the purple-maned one," it's hard to overlook.  Coupled with the above-noted writing and technical issues, the whole effect is distinctly amateur.  Of course, pony fanfiction is amateur writing by definition, but if I were inclined to write off any issues I had with stories based on that, these reviews would be a lot shorter.

As for the plot, "gimmicky" really is the right word for it.  To his credit, the author seems to recognize this, and isn't afraid of playing up the campiness of the story.  Sometimes this falls flat, especially in the opening chapters, but I think it was probably the only way to approach the premise.  Indeed, the places where Cross and Arrow fails are generally when it tries to take itself too seriously.  The attempts by Twilight to explain to her friends the theory behind their universe-hopping invite the reader to examine the setup, which of course falls apart under close scrutiny.  By contrast, Rarity's interactions with her gender-swapped self are sublimely over-the-top, and encourage the reader to simply enjoy the carefree absurdity of meeting one's self and discovering how very much alike you are.

As for characterization, the main six are all very vividly realized (leaving aside the occasional dialogue slip, as I noted earlier).  While I don't want to get into their counterparts too much for fear of spoilers, I will say that I thought they were too similar to the females to support the premise.  Yes, that similarity is a plot point, but it begs the question: if the male ponies were going to act almost exactly like the originals, then what was the point of changing their gender in the first place?  Why not simply have Twilight and co. meet their true doubles?  The shipping tag should probably give some hint as to the main reason, but I think more needed to be done with the possible differences, both mental and emotional, between men and women.  To do otherwise seems like its wasting the premise.

As for that shipping?  It varied.  Conner plays with the idea that each of the mares has some sort of cross-dimensional connection to their opposite, which leads to different ponies wrestling with different feelings for each other.  Although this idea was underdeveloped, the author uses it to explore various relationship angles.  The best recognize the uncomfortable campiness of the situation, calling to mind Asimov's famous bit of doggerel (Clone, clone of my own, / With your Y-Chromosome changed to X / And when I’m alone with my own little clone / We will both think of nothing but sex!) and were suitably ridiculous, playing up the discomfort without ever becoming too tasteless.  Attempts to find a more serious connection across the planes were generally less successful, though I did like the familial spin by Applejack and her alter-ego.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

There's a lot about this story that isn't very good.  From both a writing and editing standpoint, there are some definite issues, and the varying tone of the piece sometimes hits its mark, but often puts the triteness of the premise in stark relief.  And yet... I kind of liked it.  It wasn't what I'd call a great story, but despite its failings I had fun reading it (though the first chapter was tough to get through, I admit).  As an exercise in playing with the show's main characters, On a Cross and Arrow is a success.

Recommendation:  I think that for many readers, "rule 63 ponies" is all they need to know about this story before they decide whether or not they want to read it.  For those still on the fence, I would say that this is one to look at if you want to see some very good characterizations of the main six, and a story which is consistently entertaining once it hits its stride.  The writing and premise may be workmanlike, but there's still enough underneath that to consider checking it out.

Next time:  Solar Flare, by Dragryphon



    I have a lot to say about this one.

    When On a Cross and Arrow was first being published, I really enjoyed it. I eagerly followed every update, loved the odd relationships between the mare and stallion versions of the Mane 6, and even enjoyed some of the humor and character bits.

    And then Rarity happened.

    Rarity trying to hook up with Elusive was, quite frankly, what crippled this story for me. The rest of the selfcest moments were funny because they weren't intentional. Fluttershy and Butterscotch was cute, Dash and Blitz were awesome, and so forth. But Rarity actually pursues her male counterpart, not because it can get the group home, and not because it will help her friends in any way, but because she wants a stallion NOW, dammit!

    That moment torpedoed Rarity's character for me. Not only is she acting out of pure self-interest, but it's just downright sick what she's doing. The "prince charming" she had built up in her mind turned out to be nothing of the sort, so she decides to literally screw herself? No no no no no no no no no no no. And what's worse, Elusive is totally on board with all this. This is narcissism taking to the most unholy, unwelcome extremes.

    And I don't care if it was played for laughs. If it's not funny, it's not funny. And next to mind wipes, romantically pursuing another version of yourself is the top thing that I find disconcerting and disturbing. It kills the story for me, since every time I see that character in the fic from then on, I keep remembering that part and shivering in disgust.

    The other problem that I ran into as the story progressed was Twilight. This story is the very definition of an "Idiot Plot." All Twilight has to do to solve everything is walk up to Dusk, explain their situation, and then they can just all go home without Rarity trying to screw herself. At first, she doesn't do anything because she's afraid that the two selves meeting will cause a paradox, but when that proves untrue, she has absolutely no reason not to seek out help. And what does she do?

    She makes excuses. She pouts until her friends stop confronting her on the issue and support her. She yells and screams at everyone around her and acts like a six-year-old. Why? Because having a male alternate dimension counterpart is creepy. That's it. That's the whole reason.

    She risks trapping herself and her friends in an alternate universe...because having a Twilight with male parts scares her.

    By the time the Pinkie part of the story ended (which was a return-to-form in some ways), I just wanted her to grow a spine and do what she needed to do. But no, she just made more excuses. And then the next chapter had her going to the library anyway and finally getting things sorted out. Oh, and everyone is now in love with their extradimensional counterparts. Joy.

    I know this story had a lot of technical issues, but that doesn't really stand in my way unless the errors are especially egregious. No, this one's problem is far deeper than that. It just drags on and on and on, with every possible way out getting blocked off with the flimsiest of excuses. This story ran far too long, the Rarity subplot was disgusting, and far too many things could have been solved with virtually no effort.

    So yeah, I ended up not liking it very much. Sorry.

    Now if you excuse me, I shall be downing several kegs of alcohol to wash Rarity's part out of my brain.

    1. It doesn't seem like how Twilight would behave to me, either. She's been shown as willing to go to ridiculously insane measures to try and do something, but never to leave her friends trapped because of being afraid to go talk to another pony. Even if the situation is a bit weird like this.

      It just feels off.

    2. Funnily enough, I had the exact opposite problem: I didn't particularly mind Rarity falling for her counterpart, because that resonates with her narcissistic tendencies; for me, the dealbreaker was the same thing happening to Fluttershy. Are we to believe that the Element of Kindness is so self-centered that she'd fall in love with herself as a stallion? I can buy Rarity, I can even buy Rainbow Dash, but Fluttershy is way over the line. I agree that the encounter was handled better for Fluttershy, but that doesn't help matters when the basic idea is this flawed.

  2. It’s a campy idea all right; the problem is it’s not unabashedly silly. It actually takes itself seriously at times (I think I’m supposed to feel something for the romances) and I can’t this fict serious for a single minute. I mean the reason why Twilight and her friends don’t get help is because they believe if they meet their male counterpart, they will cease to exist. Yet, Fluttershy and Butterscotch’s meeting disproved that idea quickly (if we don’t include Twilight seeing Dusk). So, are Twilight and the rest just stubborn or stupid about not getting help or admitting they’re from an alternate universe? And every time I read the this fict, it feels like the characters suffering from hysteria. To Conner’s credit, how the ponies act with their male counterparts is pretty much how I would expect them to, so at least they’re in-character there. But with the exception of Berry and Pinkie (because the idea of two Pinkies meeting each other will bring about the end of the world to me is hilarious), I never found those interactions too interesting (plus, the fact that Rarity actually goes out of her way to fall in love with… himself? is just too creepy to be funny). There are certainly other chuckle-worthy bits but to be honest, this fict is just too dull for me (particularly in the first two chapters) at times to get much enjoyment. Not a bad fict, but one I’ve never quite understood the popularity of (this had the third highest amount of ratings of all the six-stars on Equestria Daily).

  3. Mmmm, "Cross and Arrow" is an interesting piece to look at. I reckon the reason why it hit home with so many readers is because it has a strong fanfic essence. You've got F:OE and Tales, for instance, which transcend beyond the label of amateur work, and then you have "Cross and Arrow" - decidedly no more than a fanfic, but vivid with this essence. It's ultimately fun to read, and also what many would rather prefer to read in lieu of things which approach serious literature. It doesn't require as much investment on the reader's behalf, and it's easier to get in to as a result (whether you stay on or not is another matter).

    Personally, I felt that overall it was meh, but it kept me going until the end, and that's a minor success in itself. It had to be doing something right, at any rate, which is why I don't know whether I would call this piece something that I would recommend.

  4. A good review, as always. My own thoughts on the fic are pretty similar.

    On a Cross and Arrow is not a fic I would recommend, but I've probably been a little harsher on it in the past than what it deserves. I think Conner Cogwork achieved what he was going for, and the fic's immense popularity speaks for itself, but I've come to really dislike what a waste of a premise it is.

    The situations are engaging and the writing is breezy and very easy to follow if you turn off that part of your brain that rails against the systematic dialogue punctuation errors (please look at print media more carefully, authors), the inconsistent formatting, the weird commas and the worse case of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome I've ever seen (apparently the practice was encouraged by a writing course Cogwork has attended).* That alone sets it above most fanfiction.

    But even if the writing were technically perfect, the fic would be little more than an afternoon's diversion, quickly forgotten. It starts out with this concept that you think is going to explore the differences between genders but then massively cops out by making the male mane six have identical to their counterparts, to the point where everything in their lives up to that point happened in exactly the same way for both parties. That cop out, for me, ruins the fic.

    What's more, the whole adventure just feels pointless. The mane six go to an alternate dimension, weird selfcest shipping hijinx ensue, and then they go back. Nothing is accomplished, and it's like one of those crossovers/HiEs where the central idea is "X and Y interact" and there are no other ideas.

    Interesting things could have been done here, but they weren't, and I find that endlessly frustrating. The fic managed to coax a half-hearted engagement out of me up to the end, but after that I just felt incredibly apathetic about the whole thing.

    But then, I guess it wasn't written for me. Plenty of folk like Cross and Arrow, and Cogwork was obviously catering to them, which is, if anything, perhaps a little less frustrating than the indecisiveness that plagued Past Sins.

    *It's a shame, really, because the illustrations for every chapter are a really nice touch, and it's pretty horrible that the air of professionalism they give the work is marred by the actual writing (which in turn could be rendered pretty decent with a few basic technical touchups).

  5. Could I get a clarification, please? Chris reviews fics in chronological order, but checking with the dates in the archive I don't understand if he's reviewing them chronologically from when they got a six star or when they were first pulished on EqD. I tend to think it's the first since he's been jumping from On cross and arrow to solar flare when inbetween there are around 4 stories. Can someone please enlighten me?

    1. While I more-or-less review stories from oldest to newest, I go by last date bumped for simplicity's sake (since that's how they're sorted in the archives). Also, I generally skip over stories that are incomplete unless the author has abandoned them, which is why I'm not reviewing things like Paradise or Night's Favored Child. Since the third story in the Solar Flare post is ongoing I won't review it yet, but I will hit the other two. Hope that clears things up!

  6. For those still on the fence, I would say that this is one to look at if you want to see some very good characterizations of the main six, and a story which is consistently entertaining once it hits its stride.

    Or you could read the criminally overlooked The 63rd Rune by Alexstrazsa! Which came first and did I mention is overlooked?

  7. I know this is only marginally connected to the actual review, but why is LUS considered such a bad thing? Whilst I admit that the actual 'lavender unicorn' as a substitute for Twilight's name is clichéd, I hardly think that a brief description of a character instead of their actual name disrupts the reading process. If anything, I think it would be rather dull if the characters were referred to by name only.

    Or perhaps do I have the wrong end of the stick on some aspect of it?

    1. Although there are some authorities who would tell you that LUS (they don't call it that, of course, outside of this fandom) is always wrong, but I tend to consider that an overreaction. There is good reason to avoid using it as your default attribution, however.

      Names and pronouns are basically invisible to the reader when used normally (that is, when a name is used whenever there might be confusion over who's acting, and a pronoun the rest of the time). This is a good thing, generally speaking; as an author, you (usually) don't want the reader focused on the words, you want them to think about the story you've written.

      LUS, when overdone, can be an impediment to this. When you read a story and see the line "Fluttershy walked to the park while Angel stayed home," there's nothing in the structure to distract you from the meaning of what I've written. When I instead write "The yellow one walked to the park while her lagomorph companion stayed home," now you've had to instead stop and think about who I'm talking about; who Fluttershy's companion is, what a lagomorph is, if there are any yellow characters other than Fluttershy who might also be yellow, etc.

      LUS is different, mind you, from imparting relevant character information via attribution. Calling Fluttershy "the demure pegasus" in a paragraph where she's being out-shouted by her friends helps establish her reticence to raise her voice, for example. But using the same description in place of her name when she's weeding her garden makes no sense. It's just tangential information, irrelevant to the scene, and needlessly distracting.

      I hope that answers your question. Anyway, that's why many critics and reviewers look down on LUS, and why it's generally considered something to be avoided, at least as a go-to style of attribution.

    2. Okay, I think I understand your explanation. When the description is overdone and/or out of context then it disrupts the flow of the reading process. But it works when used in moderation and doesn't make the reader unsure about which character it's referring to. Am I correct? If so, then thanks for explaining it to me.

  8. This is one story I read and enjoyed religiously. Even though it laid way to heavy on the shipping for me.

    But I just have this burning feeling that if I go back an re-read it, I wouldn't like it. So yeah.