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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