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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