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Okay, back and full of commentary! Andrew Joshua Talon's Progress, reviewed below the break.
Impressions before reading: I read "Luna vs. Microwave" when it was first released. As I recall, I found it reasonably entertaining. I quit following the series partway through "Luna vs. Lodging," though; I don't recall feeling any particular antipathy towards it at that point, I think I just decided it wasn't something I was interested in continuing to read. So, catchup time!
There are two incomplete arcs, "Luna vs. Vigilantism" and "PONIES! IN! SPAAAACE!" I'll be skipping over them and reviewing the rest. Also, I see there are a few side-stories--I'll glance at them as well, but as usual, my focus is going to be on stories by the original author.
POST-READING UPDATE: Looks like the SPAAACE arc has been tentatively discontinued, and an additional chapter has been added on FIMFiction to help set up "Luna vs. The Dreamlands." For the FIMFic version of Progress, click here. Also, I'm going to divide the review into two parts: early arcs, and later arcs.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: After a thousand years spent away from Equestria, Luna's far, far behind the times. She tries to bring herself up to date on history, technology, and social conventions, but it's an uphill battle.
Thoughts after reading: (Luna vs. The Microwave, Baseball, Lodging, and Communication)
It's really hard to say that something is stupid and make it sound like a compliment, but damned if I'm not going to try. The early chapters of Progress revel in lowest-common-denominator jokes and insipid storytelling, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that either of these elements are done poorly. Indeed, they're executed quite well for the most part.
When I say lowest-common-denominator jokes, I don't mean crude sexual humor (that's mostly saved for the side-story Luna vs. Threesome, which I recommend only to those of you who want to read about, well, Mr. Talon's version of Luna being part of a threesome. Don't say you weren't warned). What I mean is that the jokes are simple, one-note affairs. For example, a recurring gag is made of Luna getting hit by baseballs (and developing a phobia of them as a result). This is Three Stooges-level comedy: the joke is that Luna keeps getting hit in the head with baseballs. That's it.
And that's fine. Because although the jokes are simple, they're still effective. So long as reading about Luna taking foul after foul to the noggin remains entertaining, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Likewise, the uncomplicated plots and ham-handed morals (Celestia's last line in vs. The Microwave has all the subtlety of one of Twilight's letters to the Princess) are no less functional for not being suitably highbrow.
Where I did run into problems was pacing. The fact is, there's not enough narrative action in these chapters to give the story any impetus, and so whenever the jokes stop, the story grinds to a halt. Although the frequency and regularity of comic elements increases after the first two chapters, both of those have stretches that are neither particularly funny, nor particularly engaging in their own right.
The early chapters are also, of course, where a lot of characters and repeated features are introduced. Of the former, the major OCs are Sundance and her coltfriend, Hoyden, who both feel woefully incomplete at times (Less so with Hoyden, but it feels at times like Sundance exists solely to play the foil to Luna, and lacks any interests or motivations not ultimately derived from her interactions with Hoyden or Luna. The fact that the stories are not primarily about her only partially excuses this). Of the latter, the above-mentioned baseballs and increasingly absurd imagine sequences are prominent.
Then, there's the abacus.
If you've ever run into a story, comic, or whatever in which Luna had an abacus (and if you've been exposed to any pre-S2 Luna, you probably have), then you can thank Progress for that. I have always found such inclusions to be annoying when subtle, and infuriating when blatant. I realize this may sound hypocritical given that I spent multiple paragraphs at the start talking about how stupid isn't necessarily bad, but other writers and artists lifting the abacus into their otherwise unrelated works for an easy laugh invariably felt cheap and unsatisfying to me. So yes, I admit that I have a bad attitude about the abacus at this point.
That said, Mr. Talon's use of the abacus obviously isn't derivative, and although it's a stupid, one-note joke, it's the kind of stupid, one-note joke on which this story thrives. "Luna treats a mathematical tool like a teddy bear" gets played over and over again, without significant variation or expansion, but so do most of the jokes here. Again, they aren't bad--just dumb.
And a random thought to close this section: although I doubt it would bother most readers (heck, I doubt most readers would even think about it), I find references to leather in MLP fanfics incredibly creepy. I don't know what ponies use in its place, but I really doubt they make clothing out of cow hide.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
Reading the early chapters of Progress was a little like the time my friend's daughter asked me to read her Captain Underpants (a popular series of children's books). It clearly wasn't aimed at me, and it was lowbrow without a doubt, but once I started reading I had to admit that it was good for what it was.
Recommendation: This story isn't going to appeal to anyone looking for great depth or intelligent comedy. But for readers looking for some meat-and-potatoes humor wrapped around a simple story, this is a very well-executed bit of writing.
Thoughts after reading: (Luna vs. Ponyville, The Heat, The Facts of Life, Storytelling, The GGG, Wedlock, and The Dreamlands)
Although I lump them together here, these arcs actually vary in tone and quality dramatically. As usual, I'll use the previous review as a basis for commenting on these stories.
One thing I was sorry to see as the Progress series continued was Mr. Talon's increasing reliance on fan-jokes and memetic references, rather than actual comedy. No matter how lowbrow, there's still inherent humor in someone getting bonked in the head with a baseball, after all. On the other hand, when the "joke" is that Hoyden took Sundance to see Fallout: Equestria at the movie theatre, or that one of the characters said Lauren Faust's name... well, it's not really a joke. It's just an attempt to provoke a reaction, by using an incongruous name which the reader will hopefully recognize. This was especially disappointing since the author had shown in previous chapters that he was perfectly capable of writing stories which didn't rely on cheap shoutouts.
Also disappointing in the later chapters was the dropoff in editing quality. While the early arcs were extremely clean in this regard (in fact, the biggest problems with them were two or three repeated/repetitious sentences, presumably the result of editing a line and not deleting the old one), homonym mistakes begin showing up with increasing regularity starting in Luna vs. Ponyville. Oddly enough, the biggest offender was its/it's confusion (which was not a consistent problem in the earlier chapters), but other errors of that stripe began creeping into the text with some regularity.
I do want to take a minute and mention that Storytelling (and to a lesser extent, The Dreamlands) are both very different from the other chapters in tone. While the other arcs are all varying degrees of comic, Storytelling instead tells a very touching fairytale-esque story from Luna's past. I found it quite powerful in fact, and I was extremely surprised to see it wedged in between Twilight accidentally blowing out all the windows in Ponyville and an extended foray into Luna's over-the-top romantic imaginings. I can't help wondering if it would have been better off as a stand-alone (granted, it would have to be slightly re-written); it's really a wonderful little piece that seems like it deserves better than to be an interlude in an endless series of Cupcakes and Warhammer 40k references.
And a random thought to end this section: although it's certainly not the most egregious example of a missing comma ever to be seen, I got a real kick out of this line: "Angel shot Fluttershy a glare she knew quite well, and translated as, 'Of COURSE I can see that, that was the point, make me a sandwich mare.'" The tale of Angel's species- and gender-reassignment surgery so that she could fulfill her lifelong dream of selling hoagies out of a cart in downtown Manehattan is an inspiring one indeed.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
Although they aren't terrible, the later chapters are something of a letdown. The increasing focus on meta-humor and fan references is a disappointment, and frankly, some of the jokes just get old after a while. Physical comedy is one thing (even in a written medium, it has a certain degree of staying power as a source of humor), but strangely specific denials eventually stop being a joke so much as a routine: comforting in their familiarity, but ultimately unnecessary.
Recommendation: The later chapters have the same sensibilities, by in large, as the earlier ones, and readers who enjoyed Luna vs. Lodging will probably enjoy Ponyville and The Heat for similar reasons. However, those put off by increasingly repetitious and reference-heavy jokes may not want to continue.
However, I do recommend Luna vs. Storytelling, even to those who didn't particularly enjoy the other stories. And of the other side-stories, Celestia vs. Time makes for a nice followup to Luna vs. Microwave, told with similar sensibilities but from the perspective of the other Royal Sister, and Luna vs. Videogames has a style and structure unmistakably like that of its inspiration, albeit with poorer writing.
Next time: A Cup of Joe, by The Decendant