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I've seen the image used here as cover art literally dozens of times prior to writing this review, but I only just now noticed Derpy in the background. Huh.
Below the break, my review of The Descendant's A Cup of Joe.
Impressions before reading: This is one I've read before, and I remember finding it very touching. I really hope it holds up on closer inspection--I hate it when I re-read a story only to discover that it just isn't as good as I'd convinced myself it was.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Joe, one-time member of the Royal Guard turned doughnutteer, finds that his past continues to haunt him, even as his present binds him with the shackles of routine.
Thoughts after reading: In the world of fanfiction, sad stories are sometimes seen as cheap stories, in the sense that it's easier to write something sad than to write something funny, or grandiose, or whatever. While this is true, what often goes unrecognized is that writing a good sad story is just as difficult, if not more so, than writing a good story of any genre. This seems to be doubly true in pony fiction, where sad stories can easily lose their grounding in the show on which they're supposedly based; it's hard to put a lot of anguish and misery into something about technicolor ponies without crossing that invisible line between "this is the most emotionally arresting MLP fanfic I've ever read," and "wait, what does this have to do with MLP?"
I hesitate to call A Cup of Joe a "sad" story, because that would imply that its purpose is to make the reader feel sad (a distressingly large number of fanfics seem to have no higher aspirations than this). In fact, Joe has loftier goals, and over its three chapters it develops Pony/Doughnut Joe, while also examining ideas of loss and duty. But the emotional impact of the story cannot go unmentioned, and the suffering of the protagonist is what makes this such a poignant read.
"Poignant" is precisely the word for it, too. Although the story deals with suffering and loss on the most basic of levels, the ways it presents them vary dramatically. There is some wailing and crying, of course, but the most touching passages are less showy. Joe lying in bed, begging the night air for just a few hours of sleep, only to be tossed from flashback to flashback, evoke keenly the totality of his bereavement. Something few authors seem to realize is that simply putting someone in a bad situation is sad, but without context it can't move the reader. The Descendant takes the time to both develop Joe as a character and to show not just why he's suffering, but how. As a result, this story is touching in ways few other fanfics are.
Those who've read other works by the author will immediately recognize that his trademark flowery, effusive style is toned down considerably in this story. Although it can only be called "sparse" by comparison to the rest of his writings, I think the prose here is a good match for the story being told. Although Joe has the makings of a war hero, the story aims to tell a much different story, and the relative lack of rhetorical flourishes and profuse descriptions lends itself to a tale concerned not with the glory of war, but the price it can all too readily exact. The only other thing worth noting on the writing front is that the first chapter has a small but noticeable number of editing errors, though these seem to be absent from the latter two.
This is a story about war, and about death. Although not graphic, I think that's fair to note for those unable to reconcile military action with the magical land of Equestria. However, I didn't find the presentation out of keeping with the spirit of the show, if (obviously) not with the actual aesthetic.
I really don't have a lot more to say. A Cup of Joe is one of the most moving stories I've read, and even at its silliest (and it does have some pretty silly bits, especially towards the end) it remains touching.
Star rating: ★★★★★ (what does this mean?)
Plenty of stories out there can make me cry (what can I say? I cry easy). Few and far between are those that can provoke an actual emotional release--what is sometimes called, for lack of a better word, catharsis. A Cup of Joe is one of those few.
Recommendation: I'll be the first to admit that not everyone is moved by the same things, or in the same ways (tragedy, like comedy, is often in the eye of the beholder). Nevertheless, this is a story I would recommend to nearly anyone. There aren't many stories out there that blend sorrow and meaning so well as this one.
Next time: Moonbeam, by Laurence Brown