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This site is one year old today.
They say that practice makes perfect, and I certainly hope my reviews have improved over the last 365 days. If nothing else, it continues to stun me that a blog primarily dedicated to reviewing MLP fanfics has proven so popular, garnering nearly 150,000 pageviews since it started. So thanks to all of you for the encouragement, criticisms, and other commentary which you've provided over the past year. It's been fun.
Now, on to year two! Below, my review of Pascoite's The Promises We Keep.
Impressions before reading: I'm more familiar with Pascoite as a reviewer than as a writer, but I know firsthand that he's got a keen understanding of the written word. So, I'm optimistic going in. The combination of sad and shipping tags mark this as the kind of story I'd usually skip over when looking for something to read, but one of the nice things about doing these reviews is that I've found a lot of good stories that I wouldn't otherwise have read; hopefully this is one of them.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: The courtship of Big Macintosh and Derpy, from the tentative dance which is their early going to the painful choices they must make and the tribulations they face when Derpy's health begins to fail.
Thoughts after reading: In my review of Brotherly Bond, I briefly touched on something that I'd like to expand on a bit here: the idea that, when dealing with emotionally traumatic situations in fiction, it is crucial for the author to seriously reflect on how the characters in the story would respond to that trauma. I think it goes without saying that it's easier to write convincingly about a situation which one has been in oneself--there's a reason why people say you should "write what you know"--but that's in no way a prerequisite to writing intelligent, thoughtful stories about grief or loss. What is a prerequisite is investing the mental and emotional time and energy into empathizing with one's characters, and really thinking about what they would feel, what they would do, and what would drive their actions in the face of that grief or loss.
It's immediately obvious when reading this that Pascoite did exactly that, and this by itself sets Promises above the many sadfics which create a sad situation, but don't actually invest in that premise. Pascoite notes that the story was inspired by his mother-in-law, which obviously informed his understanding of Derpy and Mac's struggle, but what's important to the success of this work is the simple fact that the author made the effort to envision that struggle at all. Even in its weaker moments (about which more in a bit), the emotions and interactions which drive this story invariably feel genuine.
The author uses a fairly minimalist structure for this piece, to mostly good effect. Built as a series of semi-connected scenes which focus on the high- and lowlights of Mac and Derpy's relationship, there's a great deal which is left unsaid throughout the story. Much like the most effective horror movies are often the ones which show the least blood and guts, there's a lot to be said for understatement and conciseness as a means to convey emotion. Giving readers room to infer a certain amount helps create investment in the story, and the places where Promises does that are often its most powerful. Mac and Derpy's first kiss comes to mind as a touching and amusing example of how simply showing a character's actions, and letting the audience fill in the rest, can be used to great effect.
Unfortunately, many of the scenes which abandon this minimalism fall flat. This is especially true of some of the romantic dialogue and narration, which often skips past "touching" and straight on into "sappy." Now, I'm fully aware that my tolerance for sappy dialogue is lower than some readers, but when I come across lines like "'Big Mac, I can see the sadness in your eyes that you try to hide by turning away,'" it loses some the naturalness which I admire in the more concise sections. It still feels genuine, in the sense that I can still empathize with the characters and relate to their feelings and attitudes, but it doesn't feel like I'm reading a real person's/pony's dialogue anymore. Rather, it sounds like a line from a romance novel. Likewise, the narration is at its best when it stays out of the way, so to speak; tell-y narration is an especially ill fit for a tightly-structured set of scenes like this, and the fact that many sections (invariably the most powerful ones) eschewed out-and-out descriptions of character emotions made the others stand out in a bad way by comparison.
Without getting into too many spoilers, I had mixed reactions to the end of the story. While I understand the desire to tie this fic into canon, some of the medical revelations towards the end didn't ring true to me. I'm not a doctor, but some of what happened to Derpy towards the end felt contrived, a word I definitely wouldn't associate with the rest of the story. Frankly, I think that it was a mistake to try and make everything match up so cleanly with the show; even if the end result was similar, a vaguer or more generalized fate wouldn't have felt so artificial.
On the other hand, I loved the way in which the story concluded on a hopeful, but open-ended note. The ultimate fate of the protagonists is left open to interpretation, and as with the rest of the fic, it was this sort of ambiguity which provides the most touching and arresting moments.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
At its best, The Promises We Keep is unquestionably moving; the story's conclusion made me tear up even as I pondered what was (thankfully) left unsaid. There are some stilted or over-explained passages, but even at its worst, this story never feels anything but authentic, and that's the hallmark of a well-conceived and well-executed sad story.
Recommendation: Those looking for a story which will produce an emotional reaction should definitely read this: it's never cheap or manipulative, but genuinely, and at times even brutally, honest. Those who are easily put off by unnecessary or ineffective canon tie-ins will probably find the ending unsatisfying, however.
Next time: Yours Truly, by Thanqol