Monday, August 6, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 90: A Cup of Joe

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

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


  1. its purpose is to make the reader feel sad (a distressingly large number of fanfics seem to have no higher aspirations than this).

    This is why I hate the [Sad] tag. Also because, like you, I cry at everything, and I detest it.

    This is not Descendant's first, or at least not his only, foray into Equestrian militarism. I highly, highly recommend his amazing Somewhere Cycle for an example of how to do that well. Or, well, how to write pretty much everything well.

  2. There’s an old saying of sorts that goes something around the words “everyone has their own story to tell.” That’s what I thought about when I looked at this one. The first chapter does a very good job of showing the mundane flow of Joe’s life (one element I appreciated in particular was the inclusion of stating the time at various points) but at the same time, hinting that there’s a lot more to it. And he does have quite a past, it’s certainly an interesting and a tragic one (no tears from here but close).

    Where this thing loses points with me is its last chapter (the recovery stage). While I respect the message (although, that’s probably because I already agreed with and I have a fondness for “life goes on” themed stories), it still has that rubber mallet execution (Celestia telling Joe how to live his life, the constant repeating of the message) that makes me groan every time. To be frank, she might have as well told him to get over it. Because of that and more, the stuff with Beanie’s shade (or whatever the heck it is) comes across as a corny instead of a touching emotional climax. Also, there are a couple of references that went over my head that I didn’t appreciate (I have an idea of what the Well of Souls is, but I don’t know its exact nature and it makes me feel like I'm missing something).

    That said, I enjoyed it overall. It certainly has a basic everyday life feel that I like in my reading.

  3. I skipped this one the first time, if only because I thought it would be some goofy story about (what I assumed would be) a one-shot character. Now that I've read it, though, I have to agree that it's an excellent story. I didn't cry or feel especially sad, but I don't think that was the point. The entire story has a feeling of soldiering on the best you can, even as the past continues to haunt you. While it was certainly moody and depressing at times, Joe at least seemed to have his life mostly together. I've known people who've suffered the same thing as Joe that've ended up a lot worse than he did.

    About the only thing I have to complain about is that the pacing didn't totally work for me. The fic feels like it needed at least another chapter to fully resolve Joe's guilt and waking nightmares. Instead, it basically amounted to:

    Joe: I'm sad because you're dead.
    Beanie: Don't be sad because I'm dead.
    Joe: Okay.

    It's more complex than that, but at the same time, it's just far too rushed for what Joe is suffering from. And like Bugs said, the story pounds the moral in so hard in the last chapter that the message - and it is a good message - goes from "uplifting" to "annoying." Still, this was a good read.

    I'm looking forward to next time. Moonbeam was one of the first stories I read in the fandom, the one that got me into Luna, and I remember it being a pretty good story, albeit very OC-heavy. Hopefully it'll still hold up.

    1. Well, duh! That's the whole point! Get over it! Sheesh, ponies getting all upset over the death of a close family member! Feh! Go through their pockets and look for loose change! (Charles is a cold, evil bastard. And a biologist, which makes him at least 20% more evil.) >:3

  4. Sad done well is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, it's not often done well. The Descendant got it right.

  5. @fresno & Bugs:

    Interestingly, the first time I read this story I also felt that the ending was too simple and abrupt (though like both of you, that didn't prevent me from enjoying the story). On re-read, I felt that the bluntness made its own point: that Joe has moved on, he just doesn't realize it yet. He doesn't need to come to terms with Beanie's death--he needs to realize that he already has. Viewed in that context, I thought the ending worked much better--Celestia was so blunt because she saw that he didn't need more comforting or sympathy, he was ready to stand on his own two feet (four legs, whatever) if only he would try.

    To be honest, I'm not sure if that's the reading the author intended, nor whether my reaction the first or second time is more reflective of what's actually written (as if personal biases and interpretation could somehow be factored out of literary criticism). Anyway, I thought it interesting.

    1. I think when you're not sure what the author intended, whatever way you interpret things should be the one that works best for you.

      Unless you can convince the author that there's a problem, but that usually only happens if you're pre-reading or the story just got published. A little too late for that here. :P

  6. I always find it interesting when a reader finds deep meaning in a piece that the writer hadn't intended. In fact, I often find this to be the case in better stories. When the writer is already working in complex interconnectivities and symbolism, it's somewhat inevitable that a few things come together on their own.

  7. Yes, this story is worthy of your 5-star rating, as not many FIMfics are. This was the first fic I read by The Descendent, and since then I've been a fan of his work.

    There's only 1 or 2 stories of his I'd call 'bleh', and none I could fully call 'bad'.

    PS: I can't wait for "Background Pony" to finish so you can review it. If you don't like it, I fear there shall be a 700,000-page debate with me over it, spanning at least two centuries of posts. Sooooo, like it and avoid all the trouble! No pressure! >:D