Saturday, December 15, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 120: Substitute Harmony

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

Well, I saw The Hobbit, and I have lots and lots of opinions about it.  I'm thinking maybe I'll put that into a post for Monday, if for no other reason than because I wouldn't mind getting some of my thoughts off my chest.  For now though, it's time for another fanfic review!  Below the break, Blayze Kohime's Substitute Harmony.

Impressions before reading:  Apparently, this story was completely re-written at some point during its publication.  If I'd been reading it up to that point, I'd have been annoyed--I always find it frustrating when an author metaphorically pulls the rug out from under you, even if the change is for the better.  But since I'm coming into this one fresh, I don't expect that revising to impact my enjoyment at all.  The presence of G1 ponies isn't particularly encouraging to me--I've never found G1 plus/vs. G4 to be a particularly interesting dynamic for a fanfic--and the combination of tags (dark, random, and comedy) has me concerned, but I'm prepared to approach this with an open mind.

Also, I see there's a short sequel.  I'll cover it in the main review.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The main six's G1 equivalents kidnap Twilight and her friends--except for Pinkie, who meets up with an unlikely group of (mostly) ponies, and must attempt to save them.  Also, the fate of Equestria and the stability of the universe hang in the balance.

Thoughts after reading:  "Show, don't tell," is a standard bit of advice given to nearly every budding author (fanfic or otherwise) at an early stage in their writing.  In fact, TD did a very nice guest post on the subject of show vs. tell on this blog just recently, if you're looking for a little more explanation and expansion on the concept.  The gist of it, though, is that it's usually better to allow a reader to determine something via inference than by straight-up informing them.

One problem that isn't brought up as often as regards writing, though, is what happens when you show AND tell.  The lack of commentary on this pitfall has always seemed a little odd to me, since it's a fairly common one for beginning authors to make.  Essentially, show and tell is when you demonstrate something, then turn around and inform the audience of it anyway.  In case the reason why this is a pitfall (rather than just a thing) isn't obvious, this style of writing is invariably dull, because it constantly repeats what the reader already knows.  Also, it can make the reader suspect that the author must have a rather low opinion of his/her intelligence, what with the constantly pointing out the obvious and all.

Substitute Harmony is full of examples of show and tell, though these are especially prevalent in the early chapters.  Passages such as this one, where AJ needs to lie about her name: "'Oh! I'm... Apple... Juice. Applejuice.' The fact that she had just made that name up on the spot couldn't have been much more obvious," take a perfectly good line, then beat it into the ground.  Although I'm sure it's unintentional on the author's part, the frequency with which Blayze feels the need to explain what's happening in his story is almost insulting.

The author credits an editor on the EqD page, but I suspect that either this person was brought on partway through the work, or else improved his/her skills (or the author did, or both) as the story progressed.  Although Substitute Harmony is mostly free of spelling and word errors throughout, the first third or so of it is dramatically under-punctuated.  Commas substituted for periods, or simple spaces substituted for commas, combine with the above-mentioned show and tell problem to sap the early going of any forward impetus.

Then, there's the story itself.  In truth, there are some very interesting elements to it, including some quite intelligent playing around with time travel, a bit of alternate character interpretation which generally passes the smell test, and an occasional spot of real hilarity (my favorite scene in the fic revolves around the twin observations that Discord can apparently be freed if people get too upset in his vicinity, and that he's kept in an extremely public location).  Unfortunately, these bits are almost all saved for later in the piece, while early chapters mostly revolve around some fairly straightforward (if mostly unexplained) kidnapping and pony-hunting, "buoyed" by Pinkie's occasional fourth wall gags.

The latter brings me to an odd question: why are there G1 ponies in this story in the first place (aside from so that Pinkie can scream about being "dragged back to the 80's")?  It's (eventually) made perfectly clear that they aren't supposed to actually be from anything resembling the G1 world, their similarities to the main six appear to be coincidental... yet they each make a big deal about matching up to their respective opposites.  I never understood the significance of the decision to use Surprise, Sparkler, and the rest rather than just some OCs, and the story itself seems to vacillate between writing it off as a mild in-joke and treating it as a major plot point.

Oh, and as for the sequel: it's pretty funny, though only tangentially related to the main story.  However, the fact that it uses the characters (and characterizations) established in the main story mean that it really doesn't work as an independent piece.  Anyone who reads the main story and enjoys the characterizations therein will probably get a kick out of CUTIE MARK.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

It's tempting to give Substitute Harmony two stars in recognition of the fact that there are quite a few interesting and amusing bits scattered throughout the back end of it.  But frankly, I have trouble seeing how the average reader would get that far.  The first 30k words are a slog through dull exposition, repetition, and some really terrible fandom gags.  Well, the fandom gags aren't just at the start--a cringeworthy appearance by Dr. Whooves sours one of the last scenes in the fic.  But the point is, that's a long way to go to get to any sort of payoff.

Recommendation:  Again: the last half to two-thirds of the story are somewhat better written than the earlier segments, and has both some quite clever and some genuinely funny material.  But I only recommend this story to readers willing to accept that there's a lengthy road to travel before Substitute Harmony surrenders its best scenes.

Next time:  Trains, Carriages, and Airships, by John Perry


  1. Wow, a week and a half...for a one-star fic. No wonder it took so long. I was actually hoping to see what your opinion was before I jumped into this one (I'm already involved with the Lunaverse, so no more "Trixie is an EoH" for me), and it seems I'll just give it a pass.

    I haven't read the next one either, but the title's a pun on one of my favorite John Hughes movies, so it might be entertaining.

    ...And I take it you didn't like "The Hobbit." Oh well, I'll just have to wait until I see it next week...

  2. You criticisms seem right on to me. I was particularly struck by the confused tone as it swung between light adventure and surprisingly (but acceptably) dark. But I liked the idea of the second string elements enough to slog through, and I have fond memories of some parts (especially when the elements are tested). Playing on canon for various characters was key, unfortunately it didn't work so well for Pinkie's sisters for whom there isn't canon supporting this particular interpretation (that I'm aware of).

  3. I gave this story a try about half a year ago, and I did make it through the whole thing, but I didn't find it all that memorable. Actually, I ended up skipping several pages worth of text, basically skimming the whole thing. The sequel I found to be funnier and more entertaining.

    Oh, next time we get to the story that made me a hardcore JohnPerry fan! This gun be good!

  4. This one's on my read later list. Even if the writing is underwhelming, I'm excited for the conceptualizations and storyline.

  5. Oh, now I remember this one! It's been quite a while, and frankly, I gave up on it when it appeared to be going nowhere at an alarming rate, which happens to me quite often when reading fanfics. Either I'm an impatient reader - unlikely considering I've managed to get through the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter heptalogy and the entire oeuvre of Raymond E. Feist, though I did surrender at volume 8 of the Wheel of Time series - or there are authors out there who can't seem to bring themselves to have their stories actually go somewhere in less than fifteen chapters.

    Plus, the shenanigans of the Pie sisters in this one were not that funny to begin with and got really old really fast. Bleargh. Making Pinkie appear like the sane one of the bunch is not a good idea characterization-wise. There's funny, and then there's over-the-top ludicrous, and the latter is usually not fun to read.

  6. I happened to catch this story before it went through that re-writing thing. At the time, it got up to the point where Celestia explodes if I remember correctly. I remember being quite hooked by the story. It had interesting plot twists.

    But then Blayze Kohime got a number of complaints about things people just weren't understanding. I was one of those complainers but I also suggested ways I thought he could improve. To my dismay, this resulted in a bunch of explanatory paragraphs being shoved in. I remember one example, I told Blayze that I didn't understand why the guys attacked Celestia when she appeared as she didn't seem to do anything especially threatening herself. Later, a paragraph got added stating, 'Celestia is clearly the biggest threat.' This show and tell issue you speak of was probably present before it got re-written, but I know it definitely got worse afterwards. I felt I shouldn't meddle anymore after that.

    Also, another prominent complaint he apparently got was that the G1 ponies were out of their G1 Characters. As I recall, they were pretty much clones of their G4 counterparts with their flaws cranked up a notch and topped with a dose of jerkitis, which I found to be actually pretty enjoyable. A chunk of that is still there, but now it's with some extra stuff to show how clumsy Applejack is or much Sparkler is obsessed with shiny things and so on. I do still love the idea of Axe-Crazy Surprise. That could make better grimdark material than Pinkamena.

    I thought the G1 ponies did come from their G1 world, it was just post-apocalyptic and stuff. Perhaps I just don't remember correctly. Also, I don't remember being irritated by the fandom and fourth wall jokes. Perhaps I just wasn't as jaded on them at the time.

    Most importantly though, I'm quite surprised as how I had a pretty much inverse reaction than you, Chris. As I quite liked the setup before it was re-written, and still kinda do, (looking past all that excessive telling) but all that happened afterwards filled me with much confusion. I was repeatedly asking "Why is this happening?" and even "What is happening?" I can't even remember anymore, really. Celestia gets captured, Zecora appears, Helios and Luna do battle, Some time travely thing happens at the end that results in a happy ending. The rest is a blur. Maybe I just got stuck on one thing I didn't understand. Wouldn't be the first time.

    Speaking of Helios, whenever someone says "Red and black alicorn OC" I think of this guy. Not saying it's a bad thing, I'm just saying. Also, I'm sure I could have a pretty successful drinking game with the number of times the word "slammed" appears in this fic.

    I haven't read this sequel. I think I'll do that now.