Friday, February 22, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 134: The Moonstone Cup

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

After realizing that 1) I don't get nearly as much exercise as I should in the winter, and 2) it's been months since I rewatched any of the non-S3 episodes of MLP, I decided to combine those two thoughts into one effort: in the evening, I hop on my stationary bike and pedal my way through one episode on the season 1 DVD I got for Christmas.

...It turns out I'm not in nearly as good of shape as I was in September.  Oh well, at least this way I won't have to spend as much time getting back into biking shape once the snow starts melting.  Also, pony is a very different experience when you're watching on an actual television than when you're watching on your computer.  Also also, pony is a very different experience when you watch it while trying to power-pedal.

Below the break, my review of Cyanide's The Moonstone Cup.

Impressions before reading:  I thought I remembered this one, and was wondering how on earth it got six-starred, when I realized I was actually remembering the magic tournament towards the end of Of Mares and Magic.  This is some completely different story about Trixie and Twilight both being in a high-stakes magic competition!  So, I guess I don't have any strong opinions going in, other than that I'm going to be mildly annoyed if this story makes Trixie ridiculously powerful; I've never understood how the fandom came to accept that she's the second-most-powerful unicorn in Equestria after Twi, personally.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Twilight is invited to compete in the prestigious Moonstone Cup, a biannual competition for the best mages from all races in (and beyond) Equestria.  So's Trixie, and she gets her own side-story chapters, but that doesn't come up until later.

Thoughts after reading:  Well, I was mildly annoyed by Trixie's magical ability as portrayed in this fic.  I guess I just can't see how the rope tricks, rainbow manipulation, and a magical hair-dye spell translate the mare in this story, who can cast shields powerful enough to withstand Twi's best, and can destroy stone golems with... not ease, but not extreme difficulty, either.

Anyway, I've always seemingly been in the minority on that point, and it's a fairly minor gripe as such things go.  Moonstone's weakest points, however, are often those involving Trixie.  The side-story told from her POV which intersperses the fic isn't badly written, or even wholly irrelevant, but when the story is read straight through these intrusions do seem to break the narrative flow.  Jumping to first-person, and a minor character's perspective, does more damage (in terms of distraction and dissipation of tension) than it does good (in terms of fleshing out the fic and establishing Trixie's evolving character).  Moreover, an alt-universe shipping joke about her and Twi stood out as a surprisingly lowest-common-denominator moment in a story that mostly avoids pandering.  But with all that said, the Trixie presented her is pretty well written, and although I talk about her "evolving character," Cyanide doesn't make the mistake of many other fanfic authors and throw her entire canon personality out the window at the first opportunity.  So that's nice.

What's also nice about this story is the worldbuilding.  Woven throughout the fic are bits and pieces of backstory for the various races of Equestria, and these are without exception interesting and engaging.  The brief glimpses we get of Ghul (Diamond Dog) society and behavior are especially noteworthy, all the more so because the author resists the temptation to over-explain.  What backstory the reader gets is mostly what Twilight happens to be privy to, and these fragments are both infuriating and delightful in their incompleteness.  Likewise, the author's conception of how magic works in Equestria is clearly one that was well thought out, but it's used as setting for the story, not as the story itself.

The story's setup is abrupt (Luna shows up at the start of chapter one and basically says, "Congratulations Twilight, you'll be competing this year!  Now get ready to go to Canterlot!"), but that's somewhat forgivable given that the story's focus is firmly on the magical duels themselves.  Those duels are surprisingly interesting, showcasing a variety of magical techniques and "battle" strategies in a way which is rarely dull.  Even though I personally am not particularly drawn to lengthy fight scenes in fiction, the mage competitions presented here focus enough on unique spells, quick thinking, and other intrigue to make them enjoyable.  The action also ramps up nicely if predictably, moving inevitably towards the conflict foreshadowed in the page-one teaser.

The story does hit one other pet-peeve of mine, by the way: an awful lot of scene breaks are led into by Twilight (or Trixie, in her sections) blacking out.  Just thought I'd throw that out there; it always sticks out to me when characters black out eight or ten times in a story.  Though if, as Pinkie says, "All [their] diets... are completely vegetarian," then perhaps the two unicorns are just suffering from a lack of iron?  That all notwithstanding, Twi is given a very convincing reason for some seemingly OOC actions early on, and the other ponies/creatures are all generally well-characterized: the canon characters are completely recognizable, and the OCs are vivid and memorable.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

There's a lot to like about this story.  Despite a shaky (pacing-wise) opening and a Trixie sidestory that felt so much like it was another story altogether that it came off more as a distraction than as a welcome addition, this fic finds a way to depict repeated (magical) combat in a writing format, in a way which is almost never dull or repetitive.  And along the way, the author builds a vision of the larger Equestria that is both maddening and laudable for precisely the same reason: it never steals the focus from Twilight and her role in the competition.

Recommendation:  Anyone who enjoys extended action sequences will find their fill here.  Even those who don't might want to give this a look, though, provided that they don't mind a few jaunts into a secondary character's inner travails along the way.  Fans of epic but intelligent worldbuilding will also definitely want to take a gander at this.

Next time:  Our First Steps, by Mrakoplaz


  1. I don't remember finding this one to be particularly enthralling. I agree with the weakness of the Trixie chapters (actually everything involving that character struck me as weak, for one I felt Twilight's friends accepted her as one of them far too quickly, Fluttershy is one thing, Dash is another), but honestly, I found myself bored with the duel themselves, mainly because I remember finding them hard to follow at times (whether that was because of the writing or just sheer disinterest, I don't recall). I also couldn't help but cry foul over what Twilight did before her final match, even if she had her friend's consent. I'd think that the rules would be againist it (speaking of which, the whole "you cannot physically injure" rule seemed to have been ignored at times, unless most of those spells are like fireworks, which is equally infuriating). There were some interesting worldbuilding ideas, but this wasn't something for me. It's probably something I would have enjoyed if it was written back in 2011, and I was a lot more into these kind of stories (that is stories that involve a lot more combat based magic, most of which are Twilight centered).

    I also somewhat remember reading "Of Mares and Magic", getting into because I enjoyed the author's other work at the time, and quitting when my nose caught whiff of far too much out of character shipping. From what I've heard from others, the ending is the kind that pleases no one.

    I also just realized something. The six-star before this, 4 Conversations, was last one-shot of the six-stars, everything else past this point a multi-chapter, and so it was probably last to get a six-star. Basically at this point, it's either works that are rather long or were very slow at updating. There aren't a lot of completed six-stars left.

  2. This one's a fic I thought, going in, that I would absolutely love, but ended up being fairly ambivalent about. It's adventure, no grimdark, no shipping, solid cast characterisation and interesting worldbuilding -- the surface aspects, at least, of another Dangerous Business or at least another Half the Day is Night. But it really wasn't either of those for me -- partly because of Trixie (her sidestory, the alternate universe joke, my personal weariness with the character at the time, etc...), partly because of all those blackouts, and partly because I just couldn't follow the final action scene for whatever reason.

    But both the duels and the worldbuilding had some interesting things going on, and the Trixie sections weren't wholly unnecessary, so I think I'd give it 3/5 as well. I'm not sorry to have read the story, but I don't think I'll be revisiting it at any point.

  3. The whole blacking out thing could work in a story with a narcoleptic protagonist. I wonder if anyone's done that before

    1. My friend, let me introduce you to Homestuck!

    2. Ugh, it seems like the entire Universe is conspiring to get me to read Homestuck. Well I say, "No! I shall not go gentle into that good night, wasting countless hours until close of day; eyes straining against a flickering screen of light. For though wise commenters may know they're right, because their insistence was so annoying they will not get me to go gentle into that good night... And you, Sessalisk, there on the sad height: curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray, for I shall not go gentle into that good night, eyes straining against a flickering screen of light."

      Thanks for the link, though. It was very interesting

  4. People really think Trixie is the second most powerful unicorn in Equestria? Were they just taking her word for it? I mean, she was the second most powerful unicorn in Ponyville on that particular day, but that doesn't exactly translate to a worldwide scale. (If anything, number 2 should be Shining Armor, though he has the disadvantage of having been born at the end of season two.)

    Personally, I've always headcanoned Trixie as a dropout from the School for Gifted Unicorns, a major talent in the field of illusion (Twilight being a major talent in the field of MAGIC IN FREAKING GENERAL) so gifted at veils and obfuscations that she can even fool herself. And from thence come all her problems.

    1. I think it is more because she was, for a long time, the only other named magician in the show. Since a "Second most powerful unicorn in Equestria" OC would be considered a Mary Sue, I guess this would leave only Trixie as a suitable replacement.

  5. I'm probably one of those that's more forgiving of this type of story, simply because I was looking for a good adventure at the time. Since then, I've cooled down on this story a bit as I've gone back and starting spotting things that struck me as odd or annoying. I did enjoy all the magic duel parts as each one felt unique and had a different resolution to the "fights". I'm into that kind of stuff so I dug it. That last duel though, as Bugs pointed out, was major hax on Twilight's part.

    As for Trixie... I'll admit, I'm a huge mark for her character so some of the stuff Cyanide did to her didn't bug me much. Though I do admit he kinda hand-waved the whole, "Trixie is now a match for Twilight" shtick. Soge above covers it well, being that she was really the only other named unicorn at the time that had the disposition to want to fight. Hey, at least they didn't magically fall in love at the end.

    I give this one a pass, though I do acknowledge that it hasn't held up from repeated readings. Still, I'm looking forward to the sequel to this one, if Cyanide WOULD ONLY GET ON WITH IT!

  6. The nonsensical belief so many people in the fandom have that Trixie has any actual power as a magic-user has always annoyed me. The show itself never portrays her as having much more up her sleeve than a 7th-grader doing sleight-of-hand tricks at his school's talent show. But because fans are so easily amused by her obnoxious lack of personality and/or so desperate to have a cheap go-to rival for Twilight in their substance-lacking stories, Trixie's been permanently ingrained into the fanon as being magically powerful, actual canon evidence be damned.

  7. Thanks for this, Chris! In retrospect, I think you're more generous toward Moonstone than I tend to be at this point and I was fairly shocked that it got a six-star rating in the first place, so I'll more than happily take that 3/5.

    I will say two things:

    - Trixie's general strength is a recurring complaint (as seen in these comments). I tried to put across the idea that she is specifically not a whole lot more powerful by the time of Moonstone than she is in the series, but some time has passed that she spent studying and getting stronger.

    Specifically in the show, however, at the time of Boast Busters and even up to the point in season 2 that I began writing her duel, she was not only the second most powerful unicorn magician we had seen, but given the standing principles of unicorn magic (most unicorns only have a little magic related to their super-special talent, some few actually have magic as a talent) she was explicitly presented as having a good bit more potential beyond even what she had demonstrated. The spells she specifically used in Boast Busters had showed fine magic control (AJ's rope), extensive light manipulation (her neon-lights-movie-in-the-sky and Rainbow's rainbow), simple polymorph (Rarity's hair, and something that Twilight herself had just gotten a handle on that very episode!) and even a small ability to control clouds, something we don't see any other unicorn do at all until the very end of S3. The idea I had in mind is that she refined those same abilities and tried to fill in the gaps with whatever scraps of magic she could learn, leading her to use some extremely inefficient and brute-force methods for things like dispelling.

    I think people forget that, in fact, she WAS portrayed as having more power than most unicorns and, just as importantly, having a good grasp of using dirty tricks but staying just on the acceptable side in terms of behavior.

    - The fainting. What I didn't want in this story was a ton of actual violence, so I went with the conceit that magic was/could be sufficiently draining that someone exerting themselves magically could drain themselves to the point of delirium or semi-consciousness in a reasonable time period. To that end, I tried to portray each actual duel as an endurance test. I did it this way because I thought it would be altogether more interesting and in-flavor for the series than actual fighting.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this!

    1. You're welcome so much for this! I certainly understand your points, and Soge pointed out above that there weren't really that many unicorns to go around for a while. Although I get what you were trying to convey with all the fainting, it was used so often that it became repetitive (unlike the fights themselves), which is where my concern comes in.

      Glad you enjoyed the review. I enjoyed reading the story, so I guess it works out pretty well!

  8. And I forgot to mention it, but I have been waiting and wondering for a quite a while as to when you would reach Our First Steps. I'll elaborate once you've reviewed it. :)

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  10. I remember trying to start this, but it couldn't hook me.

  11. Actually, I found this story to be one of the best (if not the best) depictions of magical combat in MLP fanfic. Depicting that many duels without getting repetitive is a serious accomplishment.