Wednesday, October 3, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 106: Interview With a Princess

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

Does anyone else find that their eyes hurt if they try to watch TV in the dark?  I've got a friend who will always insist on turning off all the lights and blocking up windows when he watches a movie; I guess it makes the picture seem brighter, but it just makes it incredibly unpleasant to watch for me.

Below, my review of Hoopy McGee's Interview With a Princess.

Impressions before reading:  Personally, I'd leave the "with" in the title uncapitalized, but there are different conventions for that.  As for pre-reading impressions of the story itself?  I think it's safe to say that I'm skeptical of any story about a human who, to quote the FIMFic description, "By attempting a bit of magic...was able to get the once in a lifetime chance to talk with actual royalty!"  But the fact that it's tagged random, rather than, say, sad or something, gives me hope that this story isn't going to take its concept too seriously.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A brony writes a letter to Princess Celestia, requesting an opportunity to speak with her.  To his considerable surprise, she responds.  In person.

Thoughts after reading:  My feelings about this story are complicated.  Let's start with one of the things I did like: the setup.

The story begins with our unnamed narrator spending several hours laboriously transcribing his letter to Celestia onto parchment, using an old-fashioned fountain pen, then tying the whole thing up with silk ribbon and setting it on fire.  Why?  For no really good reason.  He himself is candid about having no expectation of anything coming of it, but he's clearly having fun with the whole thing.  "Serious fun," but fun nonetheless.

Perhaps it's just that I also often find myself going to great lengths and showing all kinds of pointless dedication to doing things "properly," even when using a completely arbitrary set of rules which I've made up myself (the most obviously similar example I can think of is keeping in-character diaries for D&D characters, using appropriate materials which vary from campaign to campaign--cloth-paper and ink, birch bark and coal, etc.), but I found that to be a very relatable way to begin the story.  As for Celestia herself showing up?  The story wisely doesn't dwell too much on the logic of that.

I was also pleased with the obvious thought which went into the interactions between Celestia and the narrator.  Little things, often extremely understated, drove home the massive differences between Equestria and the real world, and helped to show the character's interactions in a believable light.  Furthermore, the author clearly gave some thought to what each of the two might notice or be able to infer about the other; although the story is told strictly from the narrator's perspective (first person limited, and all that), Celestia's impressions still come through.

As for the narrator?  Sadly, I found him to be the story's biggest weakness.  Although the narrative structure was clearly justified by the nature of the story being told, the narrator himself reminded me of nothing so much as a caricature of Burt Ward's Robin: serious yet giddy, bursting with energy, but strangely repressed.  An excessive use of exclamation points in the narration magnified this impression, along with an annoying tendency to spell out things for the reader's benefit which were perfectly obvious from the dialogue.

Now, I won't say that either of those last two choices on McGee's part were wrong, per se; working in first-person means reflecting one's narrator through the narration, after all, and I don't deny that I had a pretty clear idea of our unnamed brony's (a tangential aside: why is our brony unnamed?  This isn't a story like My Little Dashie, where the narrator is serving as a reader stand-in.  This is an individual telling a story to the reader.  Surely Celestia must have felt uncomfortable not knowing the name of her interviewer?) speaking voice by the end.  Still, the fact is that I also found it grating at times, and that it often served as a barrier to empathy during the story's more serious segments.

The author uses this story to introduce a lot of headcanon about the "real" Equestria.  Personally, this didn't bother me, and I found the inventions both in keeping with the tone of the story, and interesting in their own right.  However, I also recognize that I have a much higher tolerance for unabashed worldbuilding than many readers, and I suspect that where I see thoughtful sub-creation, others will see only endless infodumps.  The meat of this story is, after all, Celestia and the narrator conducting an interview; most of the text is questions and explanations, with little or no other action.  For me, it worked.  But for some readers, I suspect it won't.

One more note: the final chapter is described by the author as a "blooper reel," and includes several scenes from the story, re-written to include fandom in-jokes (which thankfully aren't present in the larger narrative) and other random comedy.  To be honest, I'm not sure how to feel about this last chapter.  It's clearly marked off from the rest of the story, and it's true that a couple of the re-written scenes were pretty funny, but it still seems to me like a startlingly odd recognition of the medium in a piece that previously played its conceit totally straight.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

This story is far, far better than I expected it to be.  "A brony interviews Celestia" doesn't sound like a premise with a lot of potential, but the sheer amount of thought with McGee obviously put into the premise shows.  While the narrative voice is a distraction at times, I was a surprised by how much I enjoyed this.

Recommendation:  Readers who don't want humans in their ponyfiction will want to look elsewhere, of course.  For the rest, this is a piece I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys rich, intricate worldbuilding as a story driver.

Next time:  Pony for Christmas, by Brookwood Bronco


  1. Another misleading title. I was expecting an Anne Rice parody :(

    As an aside, I keep finding myself wanting to play a session with you, though I'm not all that familiar with 1e and haven't played any editions of D&D in years

  2. This story is one of my favorites even though it contains several elements that would normally put me off. World-building is fine when it's done intelligently and well, which means that 99% of the time it's awful.

    BTW, watching TV as described above is harmful to your eyes. Because the overall light is low, your eyes dilate and let too much point-source light in. The relative lack of movement as your eyes focus only on the screen, means that the over-exposure is concentrated on one area and actually damages (and eventually kills) rod cells. Ask your friend how good the night vision is. I'm betting it's pretty poor.

  3. Thank you for the review! I'm in the process of planning out a follow-up to this, and I'll definitely take your thoughts on the flaws in this story into consideration while I write it.

    Sorry if the bonus chapter threw you off. Sometimes, I can't stop myself from being goofy. I tell my wife that it's part of my charm, but she often disagrees.

    1. Thank you for commenting! To expand on the bonus chapter a bit: I wouldn't say it bothered me, exactly; it was clearly broken off from the story proper, you gave us the little author's note head's up going in, etc., so I felt there was sufficient "palate cleanser," so to speak, between it and the rest of the work. That said, reading it right after the actual story does create a bit of mood whiplash. Honestly, I was okay with it, but I know some readers would find it off-putting.

      Good luck with your follow-up! I enjoyed Interview, so it's certainly something I'll keep an eye out for.