Monday, October 15, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 109: Brotherly Bond

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

I'm just gonna throw this out there, but steak and kidney pie is delicious.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, or has never had any.  True facts.

Below the break, my review of Crash Jet's Brotherly Bond.

Impressions before reading:  I don't particularly care for Pipsqueak--I thought his part in Luna Eclipsed could have been played just as well by either a pre-existing character or a generic foal.   I still don't understand creating a new character if he's only going to be in one episode, and isn't even going to fulfill a unique role.  But just because I don't understand why he was introduced into the show doesn't mean I can't enjoy a story about him.

I am a little concerned about the story tags, though.  Sad and comedy?  There are some combinations which seem intuitive to me (shipping and comedy, dark and sci-fi, etc.), but sad and comedy doesn't seem like a comfortable fit at all.  We'll see.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Pipsqueak and his family move to Ponyville, where he must simultaneously deal with the emotional strain of losing his brother and the CMC's mostly good-natured attempts to socialize with him.

Thoughts after reading:  Let me come right out and say that I hated this story.  I don't toss the word hate around lightly; there are plenty of stories which I've been unimpressed by, or which I disliked for one reason or another, but this is one of the very few I can honestly say I hated.  I want to make that clear right off the bat because having such a visceral reaction to a story is obviously going to color any review I write, and I think it's only fair to make clear my disgust with Brotherly Bond so that you can take the rest of my commentary with as many grains of salt as are necessary.  That said, let's save the reasons for my disgust with this piece for later, and instead begin by discussing something more innocuous: the technical construction.

Frankly, it's not very good.  While spelling and word errors are virtually nonexistent, occasional tense slips (a pet peeve of mine, and many other readers) were a problem.  Other than that, there were a number of punctuation errors, mostly in the early going, but the most immediately obvious problem was the dramatic overuse of ellipses.  Now, I think ellipses often get a bad rap; to my mind they're very useful tools, even in narration, when used sparingly.  However, they are a fairly specialized form of punctuation, so the flagrant overuse of "..." in this story sticks out in a bad way, making characters sound like they're doing bad Shatner impersonations when they're supposed to be delivering serious lines.  So how bad is this case?  In the first chapter alone, there are 133 ellipses in less than 3500 words.

As for the writing quality itself, I was unimpressed.  Dialogue was flat and undifferentiated; beyond an occasional "Ah" for "I" in Applebloom's lines, there was little in any of the ponies' syntax or word choice to distinguish between them.  Narration was heavy on direct statement, and coupled with a large number of odd wording choices ("Harsh storms had more or less torn the village to near famine"), the overall effect was of a dull muddle.

Characterization was variable.  Besides Pipsqueak (who doesn't really have enough of a canon characterization to compare against), the Cutie Mark Crusaders were the other major players in the fic.  While Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were both written competently, Scootaloo was transformed into a jealous, spiteful bully for the sake of the narrative, which seemed a poor fit to me.  And although it could probably be passed over as being outside the purview of a fairly narrowly-focused story, the introduction of several explicitly carnivorous creatures directly brought up several questions about the morality of eating sentient beings which were never addressed.

Structurally, there were some significant missteps.  While I didn't have a problem in principal with the fact that Pipsqueak's backstory was revealed piecemeal, in flashbacks, the way that it built up to a reveal seems to suggest that the fact that Pipsqueak's brother is dead should come as a surprise to the reader.  This despite the fact that it says right in the story description that Pip's brother is dead (well, "[lost] in an accident") and that even without that, it's immediately obvious from the first few pages that he's passed on.  The fact that the story treats this as a major revelation not just to the other ponies, but to the reader, makes the whole scene uncomfortably anticlimactic.

Also troubling was the story's reliance on cliches and trite truisms in favor of actual emotional development.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: having a character shed a single tear unironically never works.  It hasn't worked since Dante's Purgatorio (I'll admit, I had to look up the earliest recorded reference to a character shedding a single tear--as much as I wish I could claim to have known that off the top of my head, I can't).  And the fact that Crash Jet has characters shedding a single tear of remorse not once, but multiple times throughout the story, is only the tip of the cliche iceberg.

The transparent falseness which that sort of hackneyed writing represents is part of the reason I genuinely despise Brotherly Bond.  It is emotional manipulation at its laziest; an unabashed and yet halfhearted and thoughtless attempt to wring unearned emotion out of one's premise.  When this is done with a subject like the ever-popular Sad Luna ("Oh woe is me!  Nopony loves my night; how can I continue in the face of such indifference?" cue single tear, etc.) then it's "merely" poor writing on the part of the author.  But the sheer audacity to write about something as traumatic as losing one's brother in such an apathetic, indifferent manner is insulting.  To play such drivel completely straight, to unwinkingly aver that this kind of lazy, trite, cliche-ridden slop is worthy of emotional investment, is the height of arrogance.  An author who tries to write an emotional scene based on real life trauma and fails, whether that trauma is the death of a loved one, the slow passage into senility of a parent, or anything else, I can respect.  It may not work, it may not even be good, but I can respect the attempt.  But to simply string a few hackneyed platitudes together is an insult to both the story's readers, and to the very premise of the piece itself.

I'd like to go into a little more detail about why I loath this story so much, but since it involves ruining the conclusion, I'm going to cordon it off.  Click the tag if you don't mind having the ending spoiled for you:

So there's that.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

I hate this story.  Brotherly Bond makes me angry just thinking about it.  I don't often say this, but I genuinely wish I had never read it.

Maybe I'm being unfair.  Maybe my own biases are preventing me from dealing with this story in an evenhanded manner.  I'm fully prepared to acknowledge that that may be the case here.  But I hated this story.

Recommendation:  I do not recommend this.

Next time:  The Promises We Keep, by Pascoite


  1. Wow.

    That was vehement.

    I haven't read the story, so I can't justify or put down the hate, but I will say this was an interesting read for one of your reviews.

    It was kind of nice to see a story that pulled this intense a reaction from you. Not many stories do, negative or not. Now that I know the low points, I can see the high ones in a new light.

    Still, I'll hope the next story doesn't make you so mad.

  2. Yikes.

    I don't think I've ever seen you tear into a story quite like this one. And honestly, I feel like it deserves it. Not just because of the issue of dependency, mind, but rather, for how it handles the idea of losing a close family member.

    As I - or someone vastly more intelligent than me - has said in the past, drama is incredibly easy to write, but it's difficult to write well. This is especially true when it comes to death. There's a reason most shows dance around the issue, and that's because it's such a weighty, personal topic that it's honestly hard for anyone to write about without it becoming a reflection of one of their own experiences.

    The death of a family member, especially a brother, is one of the worst things anyone can go through short of losing a child. And yet, this story makes the irredeemable mistake of giving the trivializing the importance of the events via one of the most overused and insulting plot devices in all of children's media. Having the brother magically materialize because of love or some nonsense like that is a slap in the face, and to have that brother undermine the entire point of the story is not only lazy writing, but delivers an awful, broken message.

    I can see what the author wanted. He probably thought this was a "remember me and I'll always be with you" kind of message. That alone isn't a terrible lesson...but it's not one that can carry a whole story. If Pipsqueak had been able to carry himself, perhaps by remembering some of the things his brother taught him and applying them to this situation, then the ending would not have rang quite so hollow. But instead, we got a weak, broken aesop that destroys Pip's character and invalidates everything the story was supposed to be working towards.

    And yet I didn't really hate this story that much...until some rather nasty recent events. About two months ago, my brother was in a car crash. The SUV he was driving was struck by another car speeding at about 100 MPH, rolled over three times, and finally slammed side-first into a power pole. The air bags didn't employ, the front windshield was completely shattered, and the vehicle came to rest upside-down. It was a miracle that he and his friend were able to get out with only some cuts and bruises, but the hours after the accident were some of the worst I've had to endure in my entire life. So when I see something like this treat its subject matter in such a weak, manipulative, insulting manner, I'm left with nothing but utter contempt. I know it might mean nothing compared to where you're coming from, Chris, but I can't help but share your anger at what this story does.

    People, if you want to write about death, fine. It's a free Internet (for the most part), and I won't stop you. But think about what you're writing. Don't use someone dying as a simple means of getting a cheap cry. Make us feel something genuine, make us care about the characters. Don't ever do what this story does.

    That's all I have to say.

    1. You said it as well as I could ever hope to. Thank you for sharing your reaction and your experiences. As silly as it probably sounds, I breathed a sigh of relief when you said that your brother and his friend were okay.

      This review probably isn't my finest moment--I doubtless could have made all the same points in a much more measured, dispassionate way. But I can honestly say that nothing I wrote was hyperbolic or exaggerated for effect. For what that's worth.

  3. What does it say about me that 'I do not recommend this' immediately rings the 'I must read this to see what the fuss is about' bell.

    Man, I'm a wrong 'un.

    1. Heh, I don't have any actual data to support this, but I'm prepared to bet that stories I 1-star get a lot more traffic based on my reviews than 2- or 3-star stories do. Like you said, when people see a low rating they want to see what all the fuss is about. Nothing wrong with that.

    2. I did that with Out in the Cold series. It struck me, based on your reviews, as some of the worst the community had to offer - especially Shades of Midnight, and I just had to see how bad it was. I didn't get very far

      I'd considered doing the same with this fic, but I already have so many other, better stories to get through. If I'm going to read a bad fic, I'd rather it be one I can laugh at

    3. "Heh, I don't have any actual data to support this, but I'm prepared to bet that stories I 1-star get a lot more traffic based on my reviews than 2- or 3-star stories do. Like you said, when people see a low rating they want to see what all the fuss is about. Nothing wrong with that."

      Except for those poor bastards who put in enough effort to get three stars, and then are rewarded by getting overlooked for it.

  4. Yes! Let the hatred flow through you. Soon your training will be complete!

    1. You've clearly been spending time near Mystic... or maybe vice versa.

      Who is the master and who is the apprentice?

    2. Star Wars references make me cry a little in happiness. :')

      As for the story, it's reflective of an awful feature of far too many 'sad fics' in this fandom. People write about emotions and situations they clearly can't even begin to grasp properly, let alone have the ability to articulate them with any degree of understanding. And as a result, the writing comes as across as so contrived it's sickening.

      Ah well. At least they're trying...? And this one made an attempt at having a 'happy' ending! That's a rarity!


      Still, this kind of 'sad-fic' is very popular with the 14-16 year olds, of which there are many. If I see a 'manly tears' comment, I swear to god...

      Speaking of sad fics, the next one is actually a damn good one. But I'll save my thoughts on it for Wednesday.

      Nice review, Chris. Couldn't agree more.

    3. Yet one more reason I detest sadfics.

      Except for A Cup of Joe. I just finished that one. It got 5 stars here. It's basically the anti-Brotherly Bond, to judge by Chris's reviews. Go read that instead.

    4. Mhmm. I have been meaning to read that one for a while, actually. Might just bump it up the list.

    5. Yeah, let's not get me started on cheap emotional pulls.

      I've already notched up two pony-in-hospital fics this week. It wasn't pretty.

    6. Yes, Cup of Joe was an excellent story. One of the few that have earned a spot in my favorites list, way back when I actaully had time to read pony fics for pleasure.

  5. Interesting to see you so worked up over this story; I'll certainly avoid it myself. Actually, your comments on its insultingly cheap and manipulative attempt to sleaze emotion into the story and from the reader reminds me of a story I had a similar complaint with, whose name escapes me. It was one that shipped Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy, largely by using the emotional trauma of abusive parents on Fluttershy's side as an emotional "in" for Twilight. It utterly revolted me to see the subject so thoughtlessly abused to wrench some quick emotion that the author wasn't otherwise capable of producing. Thankfully, I don't think it ever made 6 stars so it's not on your list, but it nonetheless had a lot of readers who sadly thought quite highly of it.

  6. Well, that was harsh. Not that I'm blaming you or anything, Chris. Given what you've told us on this blog before about yourself, I can understand why perceived emotional manipulation like that would get to you. (I say perceived because I've never read it myself, so I can't really speak definitively about its content).

    That said, and just hear me out here, are you absolutely certain that the story was just pure emotional manipulation? Because it could be that Crash Jet did genuinely lose someone like that and this is based on a real experience, just that it's communicated poorly and doesn't seem like it to you through the story? Any author's notes or comments on the subject?

    I'm probably wrong about that, and maybe it is just emotional manipulation like you say it is. All I'm saying is, if you're tearing into a story this deeply, I'd like to know for sure that you're right in your assumptions.

    1. That's something I thought of as I was writing the review, actually. Different people handle grief different ways, and all that. But after giving it some consideration, here's what I've concluded:

      I don't know Crash Jet, or anything about him. It's entirely possible that he has suffered some sort of tragedy along the lines of this story's premise. But what I do feel comfortable saying is that the emotional reactions and events which drive this story are transparently artificial. Whatever the author's personal life is like, this story is clearly based not on his own experiences, nor even on a serious attempt to understand the experiences of others, but on thoughtless, ill-considered aesops and trite truisms. Whatever the author's experiences, they are not reflected in this story in any way. And I feel confident saying that this was not just a matter of poor communication, but a genuine lack of consideration on the author's part.

      As I said above, a poorly-executed attempt to examine a premise like this I can understand and respect. It may end up being trite or unconvincing, but you can look at such a story and say "at least the author tried." That effort, the effort to simply try and imagine what the emotional impact of a death in the family does to someone, is wholly absent here. That's why I wasn't just disappointed in this story, but truly angered by it.

    2. That's reasonable enough I suppose. Like I said, I haven't read the story myself. But I trust your judgement, because you seem to know these things. You'd be better at spotting that kind of insincerity than I would.

  7. I love both steak and kidney pie and ellipses but know that too much of either is unhealthy.

    I loathe emotionally manipulative writing (even if it's well executed) and so thank you for this very clear and unambiguous warning.

    I am driven to rage by Sad, Weepy Luna fics and would probably had an aneurism if I had read this one.

  8. Wow, I've never seen this Chris before. It's more than a little shocking, to be honest, but in a way it's nice to know this side of you exists

    I'm conflicted on whether or not Crash Jet should read your review. On the one hand, it's important that he know the effects of his writing and benefit from critique, but I also can't help thinking it might drive him to tears. Maybe he'd deserve that for emotional exploitation, but... I don't even know how to complete that thought. Just, wow

    1. Someone is bound to tell him anyway. A fair amount of people read this blog.

  9. Oh, snap. On the hot seat next. It'll be interesting to see what people think. It was written some time ago, right as the Ponychan folks were finally having some success at hammering what constitutes good writing into my skull. How much had sunk in? Well, as I look back at it, there are some things I'd do differently, but I hope it holds up well.

  10. Forgot to mention this earlier, but I laughed pretty hard at that part about shipping and comedy being an intuitive combination. That was some unwitting wit there!

    1. Well, they certainly are. It's just that most authors won't tag their story as "Comedy" in that case...though it most certainly is.

  11. I've never read or even heard about this story, but now I'm tempted to just to see a litany of things I desperately try to avoid in my own writing. After all, there's great entertainment value in a train wreck - even when you want to look away, you can't help but watch.

    Plus, what's a better boost to one's self-confidence than looking at someone's mess of a work and going "Geez, at least now I know not to do THAT."

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  13. Hmm. I remember reading this. I kind of liked it overall. But I didn't really look too deeply into how the author was expressing the ideas and emotions through writing at the time. I just assumed he wasn't that great a writer or was over-dramatizing scenes.

    It seemed generic with some character flubs. And the emotions didn't really come through. And I have no idea why the comedy tag is there. And very illogical in many of it's interpretations of canon. (Like Timberwolves being outside the Everfree and Pip being the same age as the CMC, just a runt, even though it was his first Nightmare Night in Luna Eclipsed.)

    And the ending was completely empty. There were plenty of things Pip could have learned or discovered about himself and ways he could have grown as a character, but instead the entire story amounted to "I suck but my brother helps me; I'm sad cause I suck and now my brother is gone; yay my dead brother helped me, now I'm happy, though I still suck".

    It's ironic that the story would make more sense and be better overall if Patches wasn't dead, just away or something.

    1. Still, I felt at least the premise was less horribly contrived than most sadfics, where character development and growth and lessons learned are ignored in favor of angst. Like that one where Rainbow Dash is dying of a terminal illness and then there's TwiDash and then she dies. Like, really... What was the point?

    2. Augh, that is the WORST KIND of sadfic. D:

  14. Obviously I had to see what the fuss was about.

    Admittedly, for the first three chapters, I was like "nah, this isn't that bad." Though it kept hitting pet peeves of mine like "Luna's moon", "Celestia's sun", "Luna's stars" (Luna doesn't even control any stars, Celestia does). Oh, and the Scootaloo = Chicken thing is a no for me. I never enjoy memes.

    However, then I got to chapter four... everything fell apart. When Pipsqueak was flashbacking about getting the news his brother was dead I laughed. Literally. The "NO!" Pipsqueak shouted was just so corny.

    Not that it didn't have corny moments before, like with the bullies. I dislike reading bullies in fiction. Not because they can't be written well, but because they can't be written well most of the time.

    I also didn't enjoy reading about the CMC. They're far from my favorite characters, and in this fic, they were all cardboard cutouts of each other with some traits different. Superficial differences.

    Also, in chapter four, I noticed the whole problem you had with ellipses. So yeah.

    Speaking of which, the timberwolves thing made no sense. Why would they want them all together? Predators want to get all their prey one at a time, separated. Pipsqueak, due to his stature, would've been the first to go.

    And why did the one even find the story that sad (or Apple Bloom for that matter)? Pipsqueak didn't tell of any other stories with his brother.

    Actually, can timberwolves even talk? I left this fandom by season three but don't remember them speaking.

    I was expecting zombie Patch. Not sure if disappointed or glad. Either way, maybe I could like it more if there was an explanation, but nope, it was a deus ex machina that just doesn't make sense.

    Sorry for replying very late into this, but I thought I'd tell about my feelings.