Friday, January 18, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 127: My Little Alicorn

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

It occurs to me that over the course of the last year and change, I've written something in the ballpark of 250,000 words on this blog (that's just an estimate, mind), making One Man's Pony Ramblings by far my largest piece of writing ever .  It kind of boggles my mind to think that I've written that much, though I realize this is a fandom wherein truly monstrous amounts of writing are produced with such seeming frequency that the numbers tend to lose their shock value.

Speaking of truly monstrous amounts of writing, click below to read my review of InsertAuthorHere's My Little Alicorn.

Impressions before reading:  Well, at not far shy of 200k words, my first impression is obviously its length.  In fact, Alicorn is so long that I'm going to do something I don't generally do: I'm going to review it and its 150k-word sequel separately.  It was that or wait another week for me to get through Bringing Up Blueblood, and I figured that a blog ostensibly devoted primarily to fanfic reviews ought to have some reviewing on it every now and then.

Past that, I'm a little concerned by the presence of the dark tag and lack of a comedy one on a work which appears to be based on a "didn't read the fine print" setup.  But presentation is everything, they say, and even if the tags and description seem to ill fit one another going in, I'm prepared to give this story the benefit of the doubt.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  As a "prank," Luna decides to use a long-forgotten spell from a forbidden book of magic to turn Celestia into a foal.  Unfortunately for both of them, she didn't bother to finish translating the effects of the spell, and finds herself faced with a filly-fied Celestia and no way to reverse the curse.

Thoughts after reading:  "Presentation is everything," a wise man once said.  In fact, he said it just two paragraphs ago, if I'm not mistaken.  My concern going in was for the balance of the dark tag with a premise which doesn't seem terribly serious, and this turned out not to be a major failing of the piece.  Although there are some decidedly grim moments in the fic (the most graphic of which are in chapter 15, for which the author presents an alternate, toned-down version for the gore-averse--I recommend it to anyone who doesn't wish to read about pony mutilation), the majority of the story sticks to a consistent tone: serious in terms of events and causality, but nonetheless lighthearted.  The central conflict was admittedly brought about in too flippant a manner to really match the work's less crazy aesthetic, and there moments throughout the story which veer too far towards goofy to match the emotional and character drama which dominate the story (the ways in which the entire nobility of Canterlot behave as a hivemind with no mental or emotional inertia being a striking example), but the majority of the story succeeds on this count.

However, there is a much more significant problem which also has to do with presentation, and that is Luna herself.  Simply put, she's incredibly unlikable, in ways which I don't think were intended.  And since she's arguably the central character in this story, her atrocious behavior is an issue.

From the ways in which various conflicts pan out and resolve, it seems clear that InsertAuthorHere intended for the reader to eventually perceive both Luna and Celestia as being simultaneous victims and victimizers, each with their own faults and weaknesses which they need to learn how to address and deal with, and each also relatable and identify-with-able.  The problem is that Celestia's faults are difficult to pinpoint and easy to write off, because most of them are exposed while she's a filly.  It's made clear in the story that the transformation affects her emotional maturity (though not her actual memories) as well as her body, so when she becomes willful or temperamental, it's hard to blame her.  After all, that's not a moral failing; that's just what little kids are like, and Celestia has no control over the fact that somepony reverted her to that state.

Luna, on the other hand, has her faults and flaws presented in much starker relief.  The ways in which she and Celestia fight invariably paint Luna in a terrible light, for the same reason that watching any adult and young child have a screaming match makes the adult look bad: the adult should know better.  Moreover, since it's explicitly Luna's fault that Celestia is a foal in the first place (and thus, in a mental state where screaming is an expected and appropriate reaction to most setbacks), Luna comes across as doubly in the wrong.  Combine this with her self-pitying attitude, her obvious delight in embarrassing Celestia even after the point where she has learned that the effects aren't temporary, the fact that every time the two make up, Celestia has to initiate the apologizing, and much more, and Luna comes across as a horribly unpleasant creature.  This is doubly unfortunate because it seems it would have been fairly easy to avoid: if Celestia's culpability had better established prior to her being placed in a state which essentially absolves her of any blame for immature behavior, or if Luna had simply been less obviously intent on making Celestia miserable long past the point when it could have been passed off as "fun and games," then her character could have come across as flawed but relatable.  Instead, she's a massively unlikable figure for most of the fic, and the way the story seems to brush over her questionable actions and ethics is at times distressing.

But so far, I've been focusing mostly on the negatives, when in fact there's a lot to recommend about Alicorn.  Word use is generally quite good; the only consistent problem is an overuse of unnecessary modifiers ("more than a few" is clearly a favorite phrase of the author's), and this almost never reaches distracting levels.  The sprawling story juggles dozens of characters and spans millennia via flashbacks and memories, but never collapses under its own weight and maintains a logical, orderly progression despite its length and breadth.  And there's a wonderful attention to detail; I can't think of any obvious examples to give without delving into some level of spoilers, but the author clearly took the time to think about how a castle functions, what sorts of things might or might not get past the guards, etc.

Characterization is a mixed bag.  I've gone on at length about my problems with Luna now, so we'll leave her aside.  Celestia, however, is very well realized; recognizable as the same ruler from the show, but magically stripped of her emotional maturity (and thus, much of her empathy, foresight, and ability to accept delayed gratification).  For the most part, the other ponies, OCs and canon characters alike, were well written--save Pinkie.  Pinkie has a very interesting backstory, and one which was among the stronger plotlines in the fic, but I think too much of an effort was made to tie everything together with the show.  The explanation for her "Pinkie sense" is one thing, but the way the fic explains her behavior in "Party of One..." well, it doesn't really match her behavior in that episode at all.  Past the attempts to over-tidy her canon actions, however, she was as well executed a character as the rest: vivid, immediately recognizable, and enjoyable to read about.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

In truth, I found this story a frustrating read.  For the most part I enjoyed it, but the characterization of the protagonist made parts of the story difficult to read.  Quite frankly, Luna's behavior was often inexcusable and occasionally near-criminal (I'm not speaking hyperbolically; some of her actions literally border on child abuse), and the assumed moral equivalency between her and Celestia was very hard to swallow.  That said, the thought and writing skill which went into this story are obvious, and when Luna wasn't busy leaving a sour taste in my mouth, I enjoyed watching the many characters who flit through this story interact with one another, and glimpsing the lovingly detailed world which they inhabited.

Recommendation:  Some readers find unpleasant protagonists more distressing than others; folks who don't mind one will probably find a lot to enjoy about this story.  Readers less enthused by such may still want to give this story a look, if they're interested in a long story which combines mostly-good characterization, plenty of insight, and a bit of worldbuilding into a large but surprisingly neat package.

Next time:  Bringing Up Blueblood, by InsertAuthorHere


  1. You have no idea how glad I am that you found Luna to be as unpalatable as I did. It's tough to read a fic about a character that you like, when she's portrayed as a character you more easily loathe.

    More than just whether she was likeable, though, is whether I could accept her as a princess... and I couldn't.

  2. Wow, three stars? I thought it was going to be a lot lower.

    Thanks for the review, by the way. Not really much to comment on other than I wish you or others had called me out on Luna earlier. I really didn't see anything wrong until I went into the sequel and ended up killing her plotline early because of complaints.

    Sorry to make you split up the review. Can't wait for you to take on BuB.

    1. Yeah, I do feel a but guilty for that in retrospect. When I read it, I wasn't as willing to be assertive as I am now and I assumed I was just being a miserable old goat, so I didn't want to rock any boats. It's just something I've had to deal with.

  3. This review makes some some good points about the interpretations of Luna and that she does come off as a bit unlikable. That said, I don't really agree that it such a one-sided issue. Sure Luna was portrayed as something of an emotionally stunted bully, but well... that's not entirely out of character based purely on what we've seen on the show.

    1000 years ago she turned evil just because she felt unloved and unappreciated. Not because ponies hated and feared her, but just because the ponies had to by necessity sleep at some point and it's more convenient to do that at night. Even after being purified by the Elements, she shows a degree of immature selfishness on Nightmare Night, clearly expecting her title alone to be all she needs to step in unannounced and redefine a centuries old festival in a single night, and when repeatedly unsuccessful she simply abolishes the festivities by royal decree. Sure her own feelings were hurt, but she still shows a complete lack of empathy for how her own action hurt the children who love the holiday.

    This review did well to point out that in the fic Celestia gets something of free pass for most of her antics because she has been reduced to a child's emotional capacity. It does, however, seem to gloss over the incessant pranking that led Luna to employ the curse in the first place (forgivable since we are only ever told and never show that part), but less forgivably, this review seemingly misses the clearly wrong choices Celestia made during the Kutchen flashback and in allowing the Canterlot nobility to devolve into such a retched state (having her full adult faculties when dealing with both). Even more so though, I think this review makes a huge mistake in judgment by treating Luna as an adult, when she's clearly more of an angsty teenager, which makes the arguments between the two princesses less a matter of parental child abuse and far more so paints them as squabbling siblings who lack ANY parental figure to step in and set them straight.

    1. I haven't actually read the story, so I have no idea whether this is a correct assessment or not, but I also had the impression that Luna was stuck in the body of a young teenager. (Given the huge height difference between her and Celestia.)

      Even disregarding that, I figured that being trapped in the moon for a thousand years put a halt on both her physical and emotional development. Experience is something that comes with careful observation, a wealth of experiences and practice. It's a byproduct of learning rather than age, and Celestia literally has a thousand years of extra time to get better at the whole interpersonal relationship thing.

    2. To be clear: I didn't have a problem with the fact that Luna was portrayed as an "emotionally stunted bully." If anything, I consider that a far more natural interpretation of her from what we've seen on the show than to assume she's basically a slightly shorter Celestia with a different color scheme. My issue was with the fact that, throughout the story, Luna's behavior is equated to, and even minimized compared to, Celestia's, when Celestia is often either clearly the aggrieved party, or has story-created justifications for her actions which Luna lacks. To give an example of the kind of problems this can cause, it's like reading a story wherein a man kills his flatmate's dog because the flatmate was leaving his dirty socks in the common area, and all their friends rush to point out that they both have been doing things flatmates shouldn't do. It's not that you can't write a story about dirty socks leading to a dead dog; it's that expecting a reader to equate the two actions simply won't work.

      Oh, and in our hypothetical example, sock-boy would have to apologize to dog-stabber first, and promise not just to stop leaving socks in the common area, but to make up for all the ruined evenings watching TV in a dirty living room, before dog-stabber would confess that he probably shouldn't have killed the dog, and would agree to forgive the clearly-in-the-wrong sock-boy.

      The comic exaggeration is coming through here, right? I don't think My Little Alicorn is that ridiculously focused on establishing moral equivalency between its aggrieved parties, but the base issue is the same. Couple that with the fact that Celestia's flaws which can't be excused by her foal-state (the pranks she played on Luna before the transformation, for example, or what she did to Kuchen) are either barely touched on or are saved for relatively late in the story, and I had a lot of issues with the portrayal.

      But as always, that's just my take on the matter. And I certainly won't argue with the relevancy of the young teen/squabbling siblings dynamic.

  4. "Doubly in the wrong"
    "Doubly unfortunate"

    The Doubly has been doubled!

  5. Luna wasn't prepared emotionally to deal with a younger Celestia, since her prank wasn't meant to last as long as it did. And as I recall Celestia still pranked Luna in modern day.

    It's not surprising the nobility act similar. They're all ponies with relatively similar life experiences, who live coddled lives. Look at actors and athletes. The ones who end up being screw ups do similar things, despite seeing others fall victim to the same areas.

  6. Luna is more or less redeemed by the end of the story though, or at least she and Celestia come to terms with their relationship - it all works out in the end.

    That's kind of the theme throughout the whole thing, that the character is brought down and then built back up for the better. And yeah, this involves them behaving pretty badly for a good while, and then learning from those mistakes later.

    In Luna's case it's painful to see her being so mean and hateful for a good portion of the story, but that serves to make it more satisfying to see her learning from her past and becoming better because of it.

  7. Interesting review. Personally, I never really noticed that much of a problem with Luna, (though obviously I see it now that you've pointed it out). It was always Blueblood and Pinkie that really put me off. The former in particular just seemed too cartoonishly evil for the more serious tone the story was going for, and I think the serious tone in general was a strange choice.