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For some reason, I found it remarkably depressing when I went to the grocery store and they already had a full Halloween display. I think it's because I've got a September birthday, and the proper order of events is birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. My holiday schedule is being infringed upon!
Below the break, my review of Capn Chryssalid's The Best Night Ever.
Impressions before reading: This story has been recommended to me several times before, and it's been on my to-read list for... oh, probably six or eight months now. One more reason I like doing this blog: having a posting schedule gives me the kick in the pants I need to actually read. Anyway, based on what I've heard I suspect that I'll enjoy this quite a bit.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Following the disastrous Gala, Prince Blueblood finds himself reliving the same day, over and over again, without any hint as to why or how to break the cycle.
Thoughts after reading: Far, far too many works of fiction can be described as "X, but with Y," where X is the (usually incredibly easy to identify) source material, and Y is whatever marginal change is being made. Although this problem is endemic to all fiction, it is especially prevalent in fanfiction. The reason it's generally a problem is because it represents lazy thinking. Where "X, but with ponies" is a fair and accurate description of the story, it all too often represents an author who's slavishly adhered to the plot, setup, and structuring of X, then dropped Twilight and company into the fray without any concern for how well or how poorly the story fits their characters, and how to weld the two sources of inspiration on which he's drawing.
This all leaves me especially impressed with The Best Night Ever, because although it is unambiguously "Groundhog Day, but with ponies," it still works. The story follows almost all the major beats of Groundhog Day, from the dawning realization over the course of the first several days to the teleportation/piano lessons and beyond (and many of the minor ones, such as the main character briefly dabbling in hyper-gluttony), yet it still generally maintains itself not just as a parody, but as a story that can stand on its own merits. It's worth looking at what Capn Chryssalid did to make this more than just a retelling with an equine cast.
The most important thing: The Best Night Ever never borrows from its source material when doing so would be detrimental to the story. Although I just talked about how closely the story mirrors the film, there are plenty of exceptions; the most notable, off the top of my head, is that there's no equivalent to Bill Murray's doomed attempts to save the homeless man. While many who fall into the "X, but with ponies" trap would feel obligated to include some variation on every major scene, here the author used only what could be comfortably fit into Equestria, and what would mesh with the characters involved.
Second, the author isn't afraid to go "off-script." From discussion of the Prince's cutie mark to a brief foray into the duties and function of the government's cartographic engineers, Capn Chryssalid isn't afraid to write wholly original scenes and even entire plot points into his story. That may seem like an obvious thing--it's the author's story, why would they be afraid to write whatever they want?--but fear of straying too far from one's inspiration has doomed many a fanfic writer. The end result here is that the story, despite being so obviously derivative not just in terms of its characters, but its plot as well, still feels organic and, dare I say, original.
Of course, there are a few missteps along the way. Although I think that the repeated suicides (for those of you who have somehow managed not to see Groundhog's Day: 1-go rent it, seriously, and 2-what's this about suicides? Well, after living the same day a few hundred times, and with no hope of ever moving on, death starts to look pretty appealing to Murray's character) were probably written about as well as they could be, darkly comic and neither overly maudlin nor straight-up silly, I still couldn't quite reconcile the tone there with the more lighthearted, less cynical "loops" through the day to which the reader is privy. While I wouldn't necessarily want it (or a couple of other more potentially drama-laden scenes) to be more serious, I personally think that attaching a bit more gravity to those decisions, at least on the first time through, while the outcome is in doubt, would have fit the story's tone better.
On the writing side, there's little to complain about. Basic slip-ups (missed words, using "hand" for "hoof," mixing up genders in pronouns... there was no one consistent problem) were an uncommon but nevertheless constant feature, and in a few places necessitated re-reading a sentence to make sense of it, but past these errors the writing was clear and evocative, and the narrative structure was excellent. The varying levels of detail in which each loop were shown matched incredibly well with the needs of the story, and while I think that's not something most readers are likely to notice, the very fact that few would notice it is a testament to how well-executed this story is on a structural level.
There were a few semi-meta inclusions in the story, but they all worked for me. Things like the song Blueblood wakes up to being Equestria Girls, or Pinkie being the only pony who doesn't act exactly the same in each loop (there's no actual fourth-wall breaking here, just a little unpredictability) were all nods to the reader which nevertheless worked perfectly fine within the story, and on their own. That is precisely the level of meta which I can approve of in a non-random story, and I don't think that line was ever crossed.
One last thing I really ought to mention is that I didn't like the ending. To try to avoid spoiling too much, I'll only say this: in Groundhog Day, it's never clear why Murray's character was so afflicted, and that's fine; it's not the point of the story, the point is how he deals with the situation he's been put in. Here, the reader is given a few hints (though nothing definitive) at the end as to who was behind everything, and I thought that this actually weakened the story. To use the conclusion to focus on the "curse," rather than on Blueblood, is to take the focus away from his development over the course of the story, and place it squarely on the otherwise almost invisible (and frankly irrelevant to the story, save for its effects) plot hook. This is a story about the Prince, and I think the focus should have stayed there rather than wandering at the end.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
I'm really glad I finally read this one. Much like the movie it unapologetically cribs from, it manages to be funny, introspective, and positively sweet in turn. And most impressively, it does all this without ever becoming a wholesale find-and-replace version of Groundhog Day. The structuring of the story is incredibly good, and frankly, most of my complaints are pretty minor.
Recommendation: Did you know that some people don't like Groundhog Day? I don't get it either. Anyway, those folks probably won't like The Best Night Ever seeing as how the one so faithfully follows the beats of the other. But I'd recommend this to almost everyone else, including those who've never seen the movie; despite its doubly derivative nature, this story manages to feel fresh and thoughtful, and does a great job mixing humor and "big questions" throughout.
Next time: 6 Angry Mares, by Jelly