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It occurred to me when looking at a world map this morning that my baseline for determining whether a map is new or not is still the presence or absence of the USSR. The USSR collapsed over 20 years ago. It has literally been decades since I reevaluated the way I date maps. I suppose looking for South Sudan would be one way, but not immediately checking how upper Asia's labeled just doesn't feel right.
Below the break, my review of BuffaloBrony's An Old Guardspony's Last Duty.
Impressions before reading: I read this when it was posted, and enjoyed it well enough. However, I remember feeling a distinct apathy towards it afterwards--there was nothing about it that "stuck with me," as it were. While that's not a great sign going in, it's not exactly a scathing indictment either. Plus, there's always the possibility that my indifference will be reversed upon further examination; I've been known to change my mind quite a bit from first read to review.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: On the day before his graduation from guardspony training, a young recruit is invited, or rather, ordered, by his instructor to attend a private event, the significance of which quickly becomes clear to him.
Thoughts after reading: What makes a story a story, as opposed to just words on a page? A number of things, obviously; characters, setting, and all the other keywords which were bolded in your ninth-grade English textbook would be a good place to start. And among those keywords, conflict and resolution is the one I want to talk about. Conflict is what gives a narrative impetus, driving a person to continue reading by creating uncertainty or, for stories where the conclusion is known from the start, anticipation. The resolution is the payoff to all that conflict, giving meaning to the events leading up to it. Without some sort of difficulty to create forward momentum, and without addressing the same in a way which satisfies, is the final product really a story at all?
That's the problem I grapple with when I try to evaluate An Old Guardspony's Last Duty, because there really isn't any conflict here. At least, there's no sustained or built-up pressure which could help move the story forward. Anything which has the potential to tie the story together in this sense (not to be confused with tying the story together thematically or structurally, both of which Last Duty is far more successful at) is either quickly dismissed or is only brought up immediately prior to its resolution. Simply put, there's nothing to encourage a reader to continue reading once they've started, save an interest in the characters or setting themselves.
Luckily, setting is a strong point in this story. BuffaloBrony paints a somber picture of military life in Equestria, but wisely tempers this via the fatalistic and slightly detached viewpoint of the guards themselves; rather than playing the long hours, lonely life, and decreased mortality of its members purely for angst, the story accepts them as facts of life. Although it has its sad moments, any sadness here is never an end unto itself, but a means of portraying the author's vision of what the Royal Guard actually does. And although I've seen elements of that vision in more than one other story, the presentation here is clear and interesting in its own right.
Characterization was a bit harder to judge. Both the titular old guardspony and the recruit who is the focus character seem very much of a mold--"unique" is not a word I would use to describe either of their portrayals--but they're very competently executed for that. Summer Oak, the recruit, does show an unexpected bit of audacity towards the end of the story, but for the most part, both major characters are thoroughly archetypal. Not poorly written or ill-used, but definitely archetypal.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
For the record, I did enjoy re-reading this story. But as with the first time I read it, there's just not much here that's going to stay with me; if I'd put the story down halfway through one of the explanatory but reasonably interesting speeches which dot this fic, I might never come back to it. A good story doesn't necessarily need to be one you can't put down, but it should at least drive you to find out what happens next.
In the end, I'd have trouble calling this a good story. But with that said, I have no trouble saying that it's a wonderful piece of setting dissection and interpretation. And that's not a terrible thing to be.
Recommendation: Fans of conceptual worldbuilding may want to check this out for its well-reasoned and well-written presentation of what it means to be a member of the Royal Guard. Readers who need some sort of less academic hook, however, probably won't find anything here to keep them engaged.
Next time: Hold the Line: Tales from Magic Kindergarten, by Wodashin