Wednesday, January 30, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 130: Sword, Hammer, Stallion

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

I suspect this is a wild goose chase I'm about to lead you all on, but here goes:

When I was very young, early grade school-age or maybe even the year before, my mom read a story to me and my brother.  I don't remember story itself, but I do remember the setup, more or less.  It was about a young boy with some sort of condition or disease or something that left him bedridden and weak (and was going to be fatal), and his big brother would help him keep his spirits up by telling stories about the fantastical world where you go after you die.  Then, there was a fire in the apartment where they lived, and the younger brother was trapped upstairs.  The older brother hauled him to the window and jumped out with him, using his own body to shield the younger brother from the fall.  The older brother died, I think I remember that the parents blamed the younger one for his death, and a short while (months, maybe?) after that, the younger brother passed away of whatever it was that afflicted him.  Then, he woke up in the fantastical world his big brother had told him about.

Anyway, that's the setup, at least as I remember it.  Does anyone happen to know what story I'm thinking of?  I asked my mom, but she doesn't remember reading anything like that to us, and I have no idea where to even begin trying to find it.  All I've got is a half-remembered (and probably mis-remembered, fair warning) first chapter or three, and no proper nouns.  But on the off-chance that my painfully vague description is ringing any bells, I'd appreciate if you'd let me know what it is I was read.  This has been bugging me for a while.

Below, my review of Redsquirrel456's Sword, Hammer, Stallion.

Impressions before reading:  It may be my imagination, but I think that the average guardspony story is of somewhat higher quality that the average MLP fanfic.  That is to say, I've come across a number of good guardspony stories (including a couple that I've reviewed on this blog), and far fewer awful ones than, say, awful TaviScratch, awful Luna (especially Sad Luna) stuff, awful Dr. Whooves fics, or what have you.  I wonder why that is.  Do first-time authors tend to shy away from guardspony stories for some reason?  Do bad guardspony stories just get less press than bad stories featuring other characters?  Am I just not seeing all most of the bad guardspony stuff?  Whatever the case, guardspony stories are more or less the antithesis of TaviScratch to me; while I'm aware that there's no reason they can't be done poorly, the character label has me expecting something decent.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Reveille, a young stallion, learns through the lessons of his blacksmith father and the trials of life on the outskirts of Equestria how the tools we use, and how we use them, come to define us.

Thoughts after reading:  Coming-of-age stories are, I think, one of the easier types of stories to write.  Start with an immature and/or inexperienced character, add some life lessons, throw in a thematically appropriate obstacle or conflict, and demonstrate after or through these that the character has absorbed the life lessons from earlier.  It's true that most plot types can be simplified down to a sentence or two if one really tries, but CoAs seem to me to be among the most straightforward plot archetypes.

Of course, that's like saying that bread pudding is one of the easier types of dessert to make.  While true, it does nothing to diminish the fact that a good bread pudding is ridiculously delicious and wonderful (can you tell I'm writing this on an empty stomach?).  Likewise, the fact that Sword, Hammer, Stallion is in many ways a very by-the-numbers fic should not be confused for irrelevancy or dullness.  This is a story with an oft-recognized but still thought-provoking ideal at its core, and the way it showcases that ideal is both clear, and elegant in its simplicity.

However, many of the story elements which surround this central concept lack focus.  To a certain degree this is an acceptable choice by the author: a concise, focused narrative can afford to gloss over some things.  Yet elements of the story which could have fed into the main ideal, such as the evolving relationship between the protagonist and a schoolyard bully as the two age together, are treated so tangentially that they fail to mesh into a cohesive whole.  While not an egregious problem, the lack of integration here is noticeable.

Also problematic at times, especially in the early sections, is the way the narrative's vernacular drifts.  The story itself is told entirely in third person limited, but at times it's clear the author is attempting to channel the voice of Revielle ("The part [of history class] about King Sternwold Halfwing was mildly cool, mostly because he was evil and killed his family to stay king,"), while in other places the narrative holds a more impartial voice.  These problems mostly disappear in the later sections, as Revielle grows older (or at least, it becomes less noticeable as the colt's vocabulary improves, and is thus less distinct from the author's).

One last thing I want to comment on: since it's kind of the point of writing a CoA, it's always surprised me that so many fanfic authors manage to screw up the part where the protagonist definably matures over the course of the story.  Reveille shows clear, thematically satisfying growth over the course of the story, culminating in a fluid transformation from unfocused, naive youth to the realities of adulthood in a dangerous world.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

Despite a few issues with narrative voice and integration of secondary story elements, Sword, Hammer, Stallion is a great example of how to write a coming-of-age tale; it is simple, concise, and has a memorable focal ideal.

Recommendation:  Well, it's an all-OC cast, so I suppose readers put off by that sort of thing will want to look elsewhere.  Those looking for something short and focused, or who enjoy CoAs in general, will want to give this a look.

Next time:  Daring-Do and the Ivory Idol, by Fedora


  1. One hand, I found this story to be utterly predictable. It didn’t take long to figure what was going to happen, and where exactly every character was going to end up. There’s really only so much you can do stories about youths growing older in age, especially those are incredibly short in length. In short, I found the characters and the plot to be rather cliché. Also, I found Reveille big moment to be hard to swallow. I can buy what he did, I cannot do the same for how he came out of it, given what was revealed in that particular scene, and truth be told, just writing “sheer luck” doesn’t always cut it (it’s hard to explain without spoiling anything). Plus, some parts that were supposed to teach life lessons really felt like rubber mallets.

    As a final part, I also want to say that there are some things stated here that I don’t agree with and left a sour taste in my mouth. I won’t get into all of them, but a line like, “All our neighbors who are jealous of us, all the monsters that were run out of town… it’s all still there. Waiting for us to let our guard down,” [emphasize mine] quite frankly, was an unnecessary statement with both fear mongering and demonization undertones.

    On the other hand, I liked some of the prose (the calling of sparks as little grasshoppers really made me smile). Despite finding Reveille to be rather typical for his kind, I liked how his young boy’s attitude to things from beating up some guy in the past to girls was represented well. And, to be honest, it did hold by interest most of the time.

    Overall, it was a mixed for me.

    "It may be my imagination, but I think that the average guardspony story is of somewhat higher quality that the average MLP fanfic."

    It's your imagination, I read one recently on FIMfiction that got on the feature bar, and honestly, I found everything about it to be lackluster.

  2. This was an interesting story to write.

    It began as a contest entry on Ponychan, and the prompt was "double-edged sword." I knew I had to clearly state what kind of double-edged sword I was talking about. I think there are good cliches, which is why I chose a coming of age fic, because what's more double-edged than growing up?

    If you think this version gave the characters a short shrift, then be glad you didn't read the first version. I literally wrote the last two-thirds of the story the day the submissions for the contest were due. I added another three thousand words and posted it to FimFic only after the contest was done. That I won the contest by such a large margin came as a huge surprise to me. I also felt that the story was done after posting it, and adding on to it would just make me want to write more and more and eventually bloat the piece. I rarely go back and change works radically after I'm done with them, however flawed they are.

    Interestingly, Bugs, one of the story judges also seemed to disagree with my portrayal of Equestria as being in a dangerous world (I'm still not sure if that affected his scoring)... I did find that a bit strange. Even the show itself makes it pretty clear that Equestria, were it not for the Princesses and Elements of Harmony, would be an almost ludicrously perilous place to live. Dragons, changelings, manticores, Discord to name a few. Heck, the fridge horror of Twilight potentially being turned to stone *forever* if Fluttershy didn't happen upon her is half of what inspired that line. They even have Godzilla sized bears living in the forest right next to them! Before we knew Equestria had seas on both sides, I could only take this away from the show: we have no idea what's outside Equestria, but it's more than likely able and willing to kill ponies!

    1. I'm the judge who made that comment. I do remember my impressions of the story, if not the specific passages that inspired them. That long ago, the judges would give a relatively short bulleted list of points about each story, not the full-blown reviews that eventually evolved and were then turned over to the participants to generate, as panelists are no longer used. So I will elaborate a bit.

      There certainly are dangers out there, but to the point in the show that this write-off occurred, they'd all come from within Equestria (manticore, hydra, dragon, etc.), and none of them had been dealt with by the Royal Guard. For me, the story implied that the Guard were a critical line of defense and that the world outside was very harsh--go even one step outside the borders, and you risk your life--unbeknownst to the blissfully unaware civilians. It just seemed an extreme departure from canon, which is certainly possible, as long as it's reasoned out so that I don't get it as an unsupported assertion for which I have to take the narrator at his word. All in all, it was a very minor point.

      My two biggest issues were how quickly the ending was wrapped up (understandable for a time-limited event, you've confirmed that, and it's likely the rewritten version is improved in that respect--I've only ever read the original contest entry) and the shallowness, abrupt transition, and tangential feeling of the love interest (Chris touched on that aspect of the plot, but I'm not sure if it's for the same reasons, and the other judges left similar comments). I still enjoyed the story and gave it my first-place vote.

    2. For the record, I don't have a problem with the idea that parts of the world outside of Equestria are dangerous. Although, I should point out that a) none of the wild animals (predators included) have attacked Equestrians except in their natural environment or when they've been disturbed (after all the Ursa wouldn't have come to Ponyvile if Snips and Snails hadn't awoken it) and b) those that display some form of sentience, don't go out of their way to attack ponies without a reason.

      No, what I objected to (seen in the parts I italicized) was the suggestion that Equestria has (if Reville's dad is an indicator, might actually encourage) a "Cold War mentality," the idea that if they even blink for a sec, their "neighbors" are going to rush in, take them over, and force them to learn Russian. If that idea is true, then to me that paints those like the griffins and zebras (that is those with probably some kind of sovereign nation) as evil warmongers, which is shallow and rather unrealistic (jealous of what exactly). If that's false, then why encourage such a negative (if not racist) attitude in the first place? There are other parts that seem to fit in with this line of thought such as saying that all the "bad" has been pushed out of Equestria or that the only griffins in Equestria are the ones Celestia lets in, which gives the place "a city on a hill" impression. For me, you would have been better off just sticking to that they need to worry about the occasional run amok wild animal, rather than suggest that the griffins might be planning the downfall of Celestia. That might not have been your intention, but that's what I took from it.

      Now, the diamond dogs and changelings have been shown to be sentient aggressors but I hate both those episodes, partly because neither species is shown as anything but rotten. Best in my mind to scrap the show's portrayal and show a far more gray and realistic representation.

  3. I second that feeling that guardspony stories tend to be better on average. I imagine that people who write these take the subject matter more seriously than those writing Vinyltavia or Crossover stuff, and that leads to a story with more meat than the average "and then they kiss" or "X ponified" fic. Or maybe these stories attract more mature (as in life experience, not gore/sex) writers. Also, The Descendant writes lots of guardspony fics, so it probably pulls the average up.

    Anyway, I remember reading this story and enjoying it, specially the character arc and world building stuff, but not much else.

    1. Your "and then they kiss" comment just gave me an idea for a guardspony story. *cries* I need to quit coming up with m/m shipfics before I actually write one!

    2. For whatever reason, I can't stop thinking about this. If one of you good writers wants to take a shot at it, I will seriously buy you a plushie or something (that'd make for a pretty interesting contest!)

    3. I'm not entirly sure I could stomach writing a shipfic, but I'm always open to new challenges.

      Especially ones that come with plushies.

    4. Hehe, I don't blame you. I don't much care for shipping, but I'm a sucker for gay (not lesbian) love stories. Take this as an opportunity to show people how it should be done

      Also, should I be worried that you're doing this, what with your fondness for epic length fics? :)

    5. If I could only remove your spleen via the internet...

    6. Where are the dreams we dreamed when we were younger...

  4. The only story I have ever read with a premise even remotely similar to the one you describe is Through the Ice. But I doubt that's it.
    I swear I've seen anime with similar premises though.

  5. High society Canterlot fics are also, in my experience, better on average. And Vinyltavia is terrible because it's based on a ship that didn't make sense the first time. =/ The only time I've not hated it was when the writer completely ignored the ponies' usual fanon personalities and made them Jane Gallagher and Holden Caulfield.

    I never read the updated version of this fic, but I do remember the contest version being a pretty clear winner and giving the rest of us a good thrashing.

    1. Ah, I remember your story, too. I think Cassius is still angry about it. Heh.

  6. I've been a lurker here for a while and I just wanted to say first of all fantastic work on all of these reviews and secondly the book you are looking for is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. I've been reading it in a Swedish class I'm taking right now and I'm pretty impressed with how well you remembered the beginning of it considering how long ago it must have been.

    1. 2 shiny pennies for that man/woman/alien love interest!

      Frankly, I'm amazed anyone got it at all.

    2. Holy cow... that's it! I'm absolutely stunned that someone knew what story I was trying to recall, though if Lindgren's the author then I suppose it wasn't as obscure a title as I feared it might be. Time to go see about tracking down a copy--I barely remember anything about the story, but the beginning stuck with me this long, and that has to be a good sign. Thanks, Nshakes!

  7. Quite enjoyed this one. A solid piece of writing!