Friday, October 12, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 108: It Takes a Village

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

All done!  Below, my review of determamfidd's It Takes a Village.

Impressions before reading:  A glance at the Fimfic and FF.net pages where this story is posted reveals that it's one of the more widely read stories in the fandom.  However, that doesn't mean much, quality-wise; there doesn't seem to be a particularly strong correlation between what's well-known and what's good when it comes to ponyfiction.  Also, at a bit under 150,000 words, this is a pretty sizable chunk of writing.  That's an impression, right?

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Spike finally outgrows the library, his moving out into the village square (and into the public eye) triggers a series of events that redefine not only his own attitudes and self-image, but the very social fabric of pony and dragon society alike.

Thoughts after reading:  The quality of prose is one of the harder things to evaluate about a story, in my opinion.  Exceptionally good or bad writing is easy enough to identify, but what about the vast majority of writing which is, by definition, unexceptional?  It seems to me that this is one of the more difficult aspects of a story to quantify.  However, I am willing to say that I found the quality of writing in this story underwhelming.  While nearly free of technical flaws and other out-and-out errors, It Takes a Village makes a number of construction and stylistic decisions which I found to be detrimental to the story being told.

Perhaps the most pervasive, if not necessarily the most harmful, was character voicing.  While the characterizations were themselves one of the strongest points of the fic, over-exaggerated tics, accents, and the like far exceeded my tolerances at times.  The cutesy lisp of an OC foal particularly grated on my nerves ("Bet he can fwy wight into your house, burn it all up an' then cwunch up your burnt cwunchy bones!"), all the more so because of the inconstant way in which it was rendered, but there were plenty of times throughout the story when I felt less like I was reading dialogue than a caricature thereof.  This was especially true of characters who were drunk, tired, or otherwise impaired.

To be fair though, I will note that Zecora makes a few small appearances in this story, and that I was largely impressed with her lines.  There aren't many people out there who can write a halfway-decent Zecora, so credit where it's due.

In the narration itself, the writing was serviceable, and I would even go so far as to say generally unobjectionable, but does tend towards meager and incomplete description.  Rarely is this to the point where it becomes difficult to visualize a scene, but the style of writing does create a duller, less vibrant picture than a more expressive approach might have.

As I said, this wasn't especially poor writing on the author's part, just underwhelming.  But the reason it stuck out to me to the point where I noticed and commented on it is because it ended up emphasizing the story's greatest weakness: pacing.

It Takes a Village gets off to a rocky start in this regard, falling into one of the classic traps fanfictions which involve timeskips can make: it doesn't posit anything happening during that timeskip.  The story begins when Spike has just reached the point where he can no longer fit inside the library, yet it's obvious that until the very day when Village begins, neither he, Twilight, nor anyone else has given any thought to where he might live long-term, how he can continue to function in Ponyville, etc.  To be fair, these issues are addressed directly in the story, but not in a particularly satisfying way.  While the story may ultimately justify, for example, why Spike was so loath to leave the library in the first place, it never really touches on how none of the ponies managed to notice that he had grown as large as a small house until the story began.  Likewise in Equestria at large, events have a distressing tendency to not happen until or unless the narrative is directly focused on them.

This makes it hard for a reader to invest in the story, because there doesn't appear to be any larger world in which it takes place.  Events happen in a bubble, only as they are necessary to move the plot along.  These pacing issues are endemic to the entire story, with scenes which should be tense stretched out to accommodate individual appearances and dialogue by a dozen different characters, or repetitive tasks such as Spike's learning how to pick up apples with his talons used over and over again not to show development of his skill, but seemingly as filler.  But they are perhaps most insultingly obvious in the epilogue.  I won't spoil too much, but I will say that determamfidd's treatment of Grape Vine (one of Spike's primary antagonists) is both ridiculously contrived and thematically unsatisfying in its abruptness, and that the shipping aspects, which in the rest of the story were at times annoying in their blatantness but were otherwise not particularly worthy of comment, were cringeworthy.

What saves this story, however, is the obvious thought that went into Spike's personal development.  His early interactions with Luna, where she helped him come to terms with his extended lifespan relative to those he loved, were a particular high point: thoughtful, nuanced, and impactful.  Throughout the fic, Spike's increasing awareness of both his equine upbringing and his draconic heritage are examined in turn, and the way in which these examinations build his character are both believable and insightful.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

There was a lot about this fic that left me unimpressed.  However, when it focuses on Spike and his road to self-discovery, it is thoroughly enjoyable and engaging.  I only wish I could say the same about the larger story.

Recommendation:  Those interested in a long, thoughtful, and well-considered examination of Spike's character should definitely give this a try.  Readers seeking immersive, engaging writing and solid pacing will want to look elsewhere.

Next time:  Brotherly Bond, by Crash Jet

17 comments:

  1. ...Two stars...

    You gave "It Takes a Village," one of the most popular pony fics to have ever come out...two stars...

    Just saying, I hope your insurance covers torch-wielding mobs.

    That being said, I was never 100% keen on this one for a couple of reasons. While it was nice to have a story that focuses on Spike's development and shows some of the problems he'd run into being a dragon amongst ponies, I really didn't get a good feel from the writing quality in general. It's not a bad story by any means, but it feels kind of flat at parts.

    I actually never even thought about the time skip issue until I read this review, and now I can't get it out of my head. Personally, I'd rather they included just some small tidbits to things that might have happened in between, like an invasion of sentient turnips or an anarchist uprising or something. Instead, a lot of fics that focus on the future seem to have a "everything in the series happened and then nothing else happened ever again until now" mentality. I'd much rather have some inventiveness and progression than simply upholding the status quo.

    In the end, though, I think I'm a bit more forgiving on this one just because the show doesn't really give us any good Spike to begin with. With the rest of the cast, I could find at least one episode each that perfectly encapsulates everything that makes them unique, but Spike's episodes are all incredibly boring and tend to treat him as the villain. The poor little guy deserves better.

    Still, I'm looking forward to the next one.

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    1. If arson prone mobs were to go after Chris, they'd have done it for his review of Past Sins. It's safe to say he's... safe

      I don't think a story needs red turnips to work. How many shows (including MLP) return to the status quo at the end of an episode? Rather - and I think this was Chris' point - a story about getting rid of a giant elephant shouldn't have the characters suddenly realize he's been sitting in their living room for the last 6 months

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    2. This is exactly why I love reading these reviews. He doesn't give any extra credit for popularity.

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    3. Timeskip and pacing aside though,

      "Likewise in Equestria at large, events have a distressing tendency to not happen until or unless the narrative is directly focused on them.

      This makes it hard for a reader to invest in the story, because there doesn't appear to be any larger world in which it takes place. Events happen in a bubble, only as they are necessary to move the plot along.
      "

      This is pretty much my biggest problem with the show itself, so I can't get down on the fic too much for it.

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  2. The story hits its peak in chapter four, with the dialogue between Spike and Luna hitting some of the most evocative notes that I've ever seen the fandom produce (disclaimer: I fell out of fandom some time around May 2012, so). That was the point where I started looking forward to each new update, but sadly I did not find anything else that came after it to be as memorable. Not that they are terrible--there is still a reason why I will always recommend this story to anyone asking--but that as Chris pointed out the sparseness of the prose started to become noticeable and, especially since the draw of seeing things change after a time-skip wore off, distracting. I might be exaggerating but some of the scenes are pretty much (and one scene that literally is) just a string of spoken lines. Some others rather obviously just serve to getting from A to B.

    The epilogue, too, is a good reminder that 'this is a thing that happens real life' isn't always what you want in fiction, especially with a hot-button issue like shipping.

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    1. "The epilogue, too, is a good reminder that 'this is a thing that happens real life' isn't always what you want in fiction, especially with a hot-button issue like shipping."

      Exactly this. Thank you.

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  3. Yowch. And this is one of the more well-known fics in the fandom. I guess a couple thousand people can be wrong!

    And for the record, I can write a halfway decent Zecora.

    By beating my head against a wall.

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    1. I'd still say it's definitely worth reading. The filler is the biggest problem, the character development is great. But don't read the epilogue unless you like shipping out of f***ing nowhere.

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  4. Due to technological errors, I started this story on chapter 2, and the story was working just fine. Clearly Spike had experienced a sudden growth spurt, not dissimilar to Secret of my Excess, going from baby dragon to mature dragon in under a week. The good citizens of Ponyville were being... good citizens and helping Spike while he adjusted to his new place in the world. I liked the hook; it left just enough unexplained to keep me reading.

    Then there wasn't chapter 3; turns out my nook didn't like fimfiction's epub, and there was also this chapter 1 I hadn't read. I read chapter 1. I have absolutely no interest in reading any further.

    My point here is (a) with a few changes, we could easily cut chapter 1 and have a better story and (2) sometimes making mistakes gives results that you may not have come to by doing things right.

    Completely unrelated, after season 2, I embarked on an endeavor to watch the complete works of Joss Whedon, which has included the whole of BtVS and Angel. I can no longer read about Spike without picturing James Marsters with bleached hair in a leather jacket. Mix Buffyverse and Equestria with caution.

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    1. The complete works of Joss Whedon? I salute you sir!

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  5. While I greatly enjoyed reading this story at the time, I honestly cannot agree more with this review.

    The characterization and the deeper issues that were explored in this fic, as well as the action and some of the description were incredible, but over half the story could have been cut and nothing of value would have been lost.

    And that epilogue... Oh how disappointed I was with that epilogue... It was the exact opposite and inverse of the story start, but just as dumb. Instead of presenting timeskip with nothing much having happened, it presents a timeskip with tons of shit having happened, but almost none of it had any foreshadowing nor does it have any real relevance to the story. It's just dumped in the readers' laps unceremoniously, leaving us confused and, in my case, more than a little pissed off. I find sudden character shipping just as much a cheap trick as sudden character death. Plus, with such an open ended story, why try so hard to tie every thread in a neat little bow? Just let it be.

    I contemplated switching my thumbs up for a thumbs down based on the epilogue alone.



    On a lighter note, the authors newer story, The Jewellery Box, is easily one of my current favorite fics. It's like all of the powerful bits from ITaV with almost all of the filler cut out.

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  6. Oh man, can't believe I was away for this review!

    Two stars, huh? Fair enough, actually. If you did half stars I personally would say it deserves a 2.5 for some of the same issues you touched upon (I would just say it impacted less on my enjoyment of the story than it apparently did for you). Overall, however, it's solid read, and enjoyable enough.

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  7. This is a story I really like, but I can see where you're coming from with your criticisms. I never really thought about the timeskip issue (and frankly, I think it's a mistake I've made myself when writing), but yes, it does feel like years equal seconds here. There's too much filler in the story, the epilogue was so far on the other side of unnecessary that you couldn't see it with a telescope (why the Twixie? Just, why?), and Huffy as a character clearly screamed "designated love interest for Spike".

    Speaking of, one of the things I felt "It Takes a Village" lacks is any kind of reasonable resolution of Spike's feelings for Rarity. This is admittedly a pet peeve of mine, since a lot of fanfic writers ship off Rarity without giving the one person who is canonically head over heels for her any kind of backward glance, but it was particularly jarring here.

    (Slightly spoilery part ahead!)

    He sees her dancing at that ball, and his feelings just crumble to dust, apparently - he finally realizes she's not meant for him. This ties in with the timeskip issue - feelings you've been harbouring for several years don't just vanish like that. Also, did no one ever think of breaking this to him in all these years? Twilight? Rarity? Sweetie Belle, perhaps? Anyone at all?

    But that's not really the problem - Spike might just be lying to himself in that regard. The issue I have with it is that the epilogue (there it is again) casually mentions Spike playing matchmaker for Rarity. Uh...no. Not with as little resolution for the whole crush thing as we got in the story. If someone you (used to) love, and who knows about it, doesn't return your feelings, you don't go meddling in their love life, dammit! How could Rarity (or anyone else, for that matter) tolerate him doing that, seeing as how she could never be entirely sure he has no ulterior motives in this?

    This entire issue really needed a scene between Spike and Rarity to resolve, and I felt determamfidd was chickening out by not providing that.

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    1. I've said it before, but my theory is that Spike's crush on Rarity is entirely magic induced since he's a gem hoarding/eating dragon and her special talent is gem related. She's a living, breathing, walking, talking, pretty unicorn hoard.

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    2. Oh my god, DPV.

      This is my new headcanon.

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    3. Oh my. I do believe this my new headcanon as well.

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