Wednesday, November 28, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 118: An Old Guardspony's Last Duty

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

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


  1. Hmm, my classification of a map's age is whether or not "Terra Australis" is on it, but then again, I'm an old map buff, so that's not surprising. And hey, you would be too if you looked at some those beauties. It's amazing how cartographers would dress them up (there are a few that have Holland as a lion). If my definition of the word was less strict, I'd say it was a lost art form. In short, old maps are awesome, if inaccurate and rather impractical.

  2. I actually really like this one, for much of the same reasons you gave at the end. It's not really a story per se, but rather a pragmatic interpretation of the life a Guardspony has to look forward to. And on that front, it helped mold a lot of my views on the Royal Guard and how they're used in my own fanfiction. Is it necessarily deserving of six stars? Possibly not. But it's still a good story.

    Now the next one? We'll talk when we get there...

  3. I think I generally look for Yugoslavia first. You could also try switching to Czechoslovakia or Timor Leste if South Sudan is too hip and new a country for you.

    Your commentary brought up something that's been bugging me lately, and not in the bad way necessarily. I saw someone somewhere in this fandom make a comment that good, or at least memorable, characters are the ones who don't just drift along with the plot. It's something I've been wracking my brain over ever since, because I'm pretty sure it's true and I'm pretty sure that I've been neglecting it in pretty much every story I've ever written.

    And it's not one of those imperative sorts of things, either. You can have a character drift along with the slings and arrows, who only goes, "You know what? Fuck this!" at a critical moment and changes the entire story. But if that moment never happens, what you're left with is likely to be bland and unmemorable.

  4. Why does that map comment remind me of a question I recently read somewhere?

    "Do you still think 1990 was ten years ago?"

    I've put this question to a lot of people in my approximate age range (around 30), and I've gotten a lot of reactions like "dammit, yes!"

    1. Oh my god so much

      even though I wasn't born then

    2. I once took note of how long ago I'd felt various dates and events were to see if it was all random or if I was stuck in a particular year. I was: 2004

      Probably a good thing I didn't vote this year...

  5. Crowind showed me this yesterday, and it seemed very relevant to this post.

    S'about plot without conflict and eurocentrism.

    1. One of the major problems with seeing story purely as a matter of conflict is that it tends to make writers think that conflict IS story.

      This is probably why so many modern books, TV shows, and movies have characters endlessly, pointlessly arguing with each other.

      This "drama is conflict" belief is so deeply ingrained as dogma that when I've pointed out examples of stories that are thoroughly engaging without any conflict at all, the person I was talking to would almost always construct a torturous chain of logic to "prove" that there WAS conflict involved: Conflict with the environment, conflict with the protagonist's own nature, or even, (I swear I am not making this up) conflict with historical inevitability.

      A story is a series of events that engages the reader. The deeper the engagement, the better the story. The Dogma of Conflict be damned.

    2. Well, try pointing one out to me. I can't imagine an engaging story without some form of conflict.

    3. Here's a thingy on kishotenketsu with some examples. Rashomon is a pretty good one.

      More interesting stuff.

      As for stuff without conflict, I like Meshes of the Afternoon and Chien Andalou, which don't use the traditional Aristotelian narrative structure, but I found them enjoyable to watch nonetheless. Citizen Kane might also be a good example. There is no clear-cut antagonist throughout the film, and the whole thing is almost a documentary of his life, until the end, where it's revealed that he cherished his childhood sled, Rosebud. (With all the Freudian shit this entails.) Sans toit ni loi, which imo, is pretty much homage to Citizen Kane, takes on pretty much the same narrative style. And also, I really liked À ma soeur!, which is almost like a slice-of-life series of events about a girl and her sister and while there is conflict between them, it doesn't really all come together until the end when uh... Okay. I probably shouldn't even talk about the end.

      ...I swear to God I am not normally this pretentious.

      I dunno how many of these examples strictly "count", though.

    4. Unless I've completely misunderstood the concept of Kishotenketsu - which is entirely possible, considering I just skimmed the article - it looks like it still follows the idea of creating and resolving tension. Conflict, then, would only be a particular method of doing this, rather than being a perfect synonym as I had originally assumed. I'm not really a fan of twists, though. It's much more rewarding to either predict the conclusion through careful observation or at least see how you failed to do so (I should've known Bruce Willis was a ghost!)

    5. Sessalisk provided some good ones. Another that springs immediately to mind is Borges' The Library of Babel.

  6. You can certainly create a plot without conflict or a twist (which I would argue is a kind of conflict with the reader's expectations, but that is not my point here), but I don't think you can create a good plot without those.

    That doesn't mean you can't get a good story this way, but the story would be interesting for other reasons, such as world building or interesting characters.

    1. Sorry, I was supposed to reply to the thread above.

    2. But aren't interesting characters and worlds often the products of conflict? I'm with InquisitorM on this one. I can't really picture a good story that doesn't involve some sort of conflict, even something seemingly mundane. Like music, great storytelling is about the creation and resolution of tension

    3. There is a bunch of "Slice of Life" manga that pretty much consists of following a colorful bunch of characters through some scenario (generally high school related). In most stories there is no real conflict, other than they interacting in some situation.

    4. Also, Yotsuba&! is also hella awesome. EVERYBODY CLAP FOR THE COW!!!



      *scene ends*


    5. You know, I was very proud of myself having come to the conclusion that "plot is conflict", and now you're telling me it's not true? :| Godfuckingdammit.

      While I'll certainly say that conflict-less stories, based around characterization, introspection, or world-building, can certainly be interesting, that doesn't mean they all are. I've developed a certain loathing for the [Slice-of-Life] tag because it usually means "there is no plot", and more often than not, unless there are other tags along with it, the stories that purport to be solely SOL are extremely boring (see also Reading Rainbow).

      This Kishoutenketsu (I wrote that without looking!) idea is intriguing, and suggests a lot of answers to crosscultural conundrums I've witnessed in the past. Knowing that there are other answers to plot is a Good Thing. However, one should also keep in mind one's audience when writing. If your audience is primarily Western, it may be a good idea to involve conflict in your story. (inb4 someone tells me that you don't have to take your audience into consideration at all or something)

    6. Hee. Being someone who is far more of a troper than a brony, I gotta say that this discussion is hella fun.

      Some other maybe-interesting narrative doodads:

      In the west it's considered a mistake to have a lot of plot stuff left hanging. When a creator doesn't answer all the mysteries by the end of a story, a western viewer will see this as a plot hole, even as a hallmark of lazy writing. (Or they'll think it's a sequel hook or something.) Just think about what sort of uproar there would've been if they decided to end Lost without telling everyone that it was some purgatory portal or some shit like that (I've actually never seen Lost, so I could be pulling shit out of my ass).

      Overseas, or at least in Japan, having a lot of mysteries at the end of a series is considered to be interesting and exciting. It's why so much anime has such inconclusive finales. It's why no one ever comes out and explains to you what the fuck that bathhouse spirit world is in Spirited Away, even though it was clearly not a film that was made to screw with your head. It's not that knowing the why isn't important. It's that not knowing is part of the fun. Giving your readers (or viewers) the answers to all the ontological questions is probably akin to blowing your load all over their face.

      So to speak.

      Romances are treated pretty differently too. Something I've noticed about a lot of American media is that love triangles are really, really, really fucking popular. Everything with a romance in it will inevitably have a love triangle because that is, apparently, the easiest (and, thus, go-to) way of creating conflict in that sort of genre. With eastern shit, it seems like they're pretty fond of that trope where you have an older character be nice to a small child, and then the small child grows up and falls in love with the older character. Creepy child-grooming implications aside, I don't know why this is. Maybe it's a callback to The Tale of Genji or some shit like that, but that wouldn't really explain why it's so popular in Korea too. Pop-cultural osmosis maybe? idk. I guess it doesn't make any less sense than us being obsessed with Greek narrative structure all the way in a different continent several thousand years later.

      If you look at the different tropes that are popular in different places, you really get to see that there is no 100% objectively right way to do a lot of this shit. There are just patterns that we project ourselves onto, and some of them we are more fond of than others.

      Culture is fucking weird.

    7. There are plenty of Western stories that don't explain everything and have been considered great. If I remember correctly, Aristotle even said you could and should leave certain things unexplained, though they should happen before the story proper. What would be lazy writing is introducing elements that do nothing to advance the story or give us greater insight into the characters. Don't tell me the main character's profession unless he uses that skill by the end of the movie or it explains his actions or motivations

      Sessalisk, you may have a point with that second-to-last paragraph. Pretty much every medium has a "classic" approach which is characterized by elements I find ideologically pleasing. While I'd like to think these are universal truths, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong and they are merely subsets of something greater. I can't let go of the idea that there is some objective basis for what makes a good story, picture, game, etc. I have to believe there's an objective world independent of us. The alternative, no matter how hard I try, just doesn't seem right to me

      If this turns into a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I'm out

    8. Yer. That's pretty much my point. It's not that stories that don't explain everything can't be good. It's just that them not being good because they didn't explain everything is only one way of looking at it.

      As for the objective world independent of us, I believe you're referring to "math". X)

      Storytelling is pretty subjective by definition. There are patterns that most humans find more pleasing than others, but playing to our psyches is an exercise in a very selective kind of subjectivity. Here's something fun and tangentially related.