Friday, February 15, 2013

Mini-Reviews Round 3

I hope you all had a happy Valentine's Day!  I always love V-Day; I do singing valentines with a quartet, and it's always a blast.  We even got to be part of someone's marriage proposal this year!  Nothing like that to put you in a good mood.

And speaking of things that put everyone in a good mood, here are some short (well, relatively speaking) reviews of the pony fanfics I've read recently that weren't for my 6-star reviews.  Click below to take a gander.

1.     The Flight of the Alicorn, by Ponydora Prancypants

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  During the events of Sweet and Elite, Fancypants invites Rarity to participate in a quinquennial airship race which is coming up relatively soon.  Rarity accepts, not realizing that doing so will put her in the middle of a massive political and military maelstrom.  Also, Blueblood's there, and that's certain not to cause any drama.

A few thoughts:  Actually, this review isn't going to be "mini" at all.  I guess you can only be so concise when speaking about a story that's over 200k words.  This is one of those massive, super-famous stories which the fandom seems to regularly produce, and I doubt it will be wholly unfamiliar to many, even those who haven't read it.

I started this story several months ago, and after getting a few chapters in I did something I rarely do: I stopped plowing through it, and started reading just a chapter every week or so.  The reason I did this is because I determined that the story works much better when treated as a serial narrative than as a cohesive novel.

Read as a novel, there are some problems here.  Character arcs and emotional developments are treated haphazardly, often forgotten about for long segments in order to focus on some issue du jour; pacing tends to be jerky, going significant stretches without any sustained buildup before suddenly spiking in intensity, and often rising and diminishing in tempo with minor sub-plots rather than in service to the whole work; characters sometimes seem to develop or simply change without much impetus; and the narration is heavy on exposition, some of which represents interesting bits of worldbuilding, but plenty of which falls into the "She remembered [detailed description of what happened a couple of chapters ago]."  But when the chapters are broken up, these problems mostly become assets.  Most individual chapters stand on their own nicely, in terms of action; there aren't really any "filler" chapters, and the frequent up-and-down I mentioned means that each nugget has some sort of buildup and resolution of its own.  And of course, taking the time to remind the reader who a character is after they've been gone two chapters in a novel is a lot different than reminding them who they are two weeks later.  Likewise, the gaps between reading tend to dull the impact of otherwise sudden changes in character behavior, giving the whole work a much smoother feel than a cover-to-cover reading would.

As for the story itself?  The race which Rarity participates in is excellently conceived, both in terms of its history and its place within the story.  The events after the second leg of that race are often interesting in their own right, and a number of ideas about personal responsibility and morality are intelligently explored.  However, much of the political talk (especially Fancypants') is distressingly simplistic by comparison, or at least is simplistically presented.

The ending was something of a letdown.  Although thoroughly foreshadowed in dream sequences prior to the ultimate confrontation (dream sequences which, I would add, were among the weaker story elements), that confrontation was short, confusing, and spent far too much energy setting up the sequel, at the expense of leaving readers with a satisfying denouement.  Then again, I'm not much for sequel bait, personally, so I may be over-reacting.

Recommendation:  Apparently, this story just missed out on 6-star status.  It's a shame it did, since it would have been a good one to review that way (though looking at what I've written, I basically did give it a full review, didn't I?).  In any case, for readers looking for something best enjoyed in serial fashion, I would recommend Alicorn as an intelligent, action-filled, and occasionally blindingly clever (example: near the middle of the story, a griffon consumes a bit of catta extract, which temporarily makes one appear lifeless, to fake his own death.  I wasn't until the very last chapter that this paid off with Rarity casually talking about the use of "catta tonic") work of fanfiction.

2.     Can't Chose Your Family, by CyborgSamurai

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Prior to hosting a meeting of the Asgardian gods, Celestia has a brief one-on-one meeting with her "grandmother," Loki.

A few thoughts:  There are some interesting ideas here.  The Loki-Slepnir-Celestia family tree is presented in a way that makes a lot of sense (on a related note, at least a passing familiarity with Norse mythology is probably required to fully enjoy this story), and there was clearly a lot of thought that went into Loki's character, from "his" flexible definition of gender to his unconventional sense of loyalty and understanding of betrayal.  But I came away from reading this feeling like there was just too much being crammed into a very small story.  The meeting which Celestia is holding acts only as a bookend, but its inclusion takes some of the focus off the central conversation between Loki and Celestia, where it rightfully should be, and although some story elements (such as Discord) are well-addressed, others (Celestia's responsibilities as a controller of a star) are barely skimmed over.  I thought this was an enjoyable enough work, but with some judicious pruning and a stronger sense of focus, I believe I'd have liked it a lot more.

Recommendation:  Fans of Norse mythology ought to at least give this a look.  Other readers may want to see what's inside, if they enjoy conversation-based stories and are willing to accept occasionally rushing through major revelations or story elements to get it.

3.     Hard Reset, by Eakin

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Twilight casts a spell which snares in a repeating loop: a few hours after she casts it, she dies, and then is brought back to the point where she finished casting the spell.  Oh, and most of Equestria gets vaporized too, if she isn't killed by the full-scale changeling invasion before then.  So, she has to figure out how to stop that, and maybe how to stop looping back on herself while she's at it.

A few thoughts:  This is one of those stories that you have to enjoy on its own terms, and if you're willing to buy the whole "Twilight keeps dying" setup, together with all its attendant darkness, then it's got some great parts.  The entire middle section, where Twi experiments with running, fighting, doing near-endless research by taking advantage of her effectively unlimited time, looting, and basically doing whatever else she wants without worrying about the consequences is often amusing, and has some hilariously snarky first-person narration and equally ridiculous dialogue.

Unfortunately, the beginning and ending don't really measure up.  The action takes a while to get going, and any effort to mesh the show's sensibilities with the death- and destruction-heavy tone are wasted.  Meanwhile, it seemed to me that the natural place to end the story would have been shortly after the last loop, but instead there's a lengthy pseudo-epilogue all about Twi facing her inner demons and coming to terms with how the experience changed her.  While not poorly written per se, it's awfully hard to take seriously compared to the over-the-top dark humor of the story's meat.  There may be a few serious moments in those loops, but they're usually followed shortly by something zany and/or Twi's deadpan sarcasm; the ending section has few such respites.

Recommendation:  People who don't want to read about lots and lots of dying need not bother, obviously.  Fans of dark humor will find plenty to like here, though the best scenes and lines are mostly in the middle section of the work.

4.     Of Skies Long Forgotten, by The 24th Pegasus

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The story of Commander Hurricane's rise to power, from a humble farmer to Emperor of the ancient pegasus kingdom of Cirra, and of the war with the griffons which imperiled that same kingdom.

A few thoughts:  This story reminded me a lot of Cloudy Skies' Within and Without: not because they have much in common thematically or anything, but because both were stories that seemed designed to annoy me as much as possible without ever actually driving me to give up on them completely.

Let's start with the bits that kept me reading.  Cirra is a dead ringer for Rome, and the worldbuilding and bits of history which go into this story are fascinating.  The background for the pegasus/griffon conflict is well thought out and engaging, and the author has a wonderful sense of scope, capturing clearly and sometimes vividly the grandeur and scale of the empire he writes about.

Now the bad.

The characters are, to a man (pony), dull, wooden, monodimensional puppets which speak and act like they're on a Sy-fy original movie.  The griffon leader cackles his way through more than one villain monologue full of grandiose threats and bellicose posturing, while Hurricane and his friends embody the ideal of tested nobility, when they aren't busy having frighteningly unnatural "conversations" (Hurricane: "'I always kind of marveled the emperor when I was younger, looked in awe at the Senate and how lucky they were to be able to lead the country.  Now,' he exhaled slowly as he returned the quill to the inkwell, 'Now I think we were the lucky ones.  I didn't have to worry about whether I was doing the right thing; I could just follow my moral compass in [his hometown].  From my perch in [the capital], though, what's morally right isn't always what's best for my subjects.'"  That in response to his girlfriend commenting on how nice the Emperor's room is).  Other minor characters are seemingly motivated purely by the needs of the plot; to call them caricatures would be an understatement.  The sense of grandiosity often devolves into ridiculousness: there's not a single battle mentioned where more than a handful of the losing force survives, for example.  Foreshadowing is painful in its obviousness.  What I'm getting at here is that there were a lot of things I didn't like.

Recommendation:  Well, I finished it, so I won't pretend it was awful--awful fanfics get abandoned.  But it sure wasn't what I'd call good.  Well, the worldbuilding and history were good, but the rest was an exercise in gritting my teeth and pushing through to the next bit which interested me.  I don't particularly recommend this one, except to fans of detailed and thoughtful histories who are willing to bear some really unfortunate dialogue, characterization, and structuring to get to it.


  1. "Meanwhile, it seemed to me that the natural place to end the story would have been shortly after the last loop, but instead there's a lengthy pseudo-epilogue all about Twi facing her inner demons and coming to terms with how the experience changed her."

    XD "Shortly after the last loop" was exactly where it did end, originally. People complained that the original ending didn't give enough closure, so the lengthy epilogue was tacked on.

    1. And that's why you never give people what they think they want. They're usually wrong

    2. I'm with ProfessorOats on this one. "Always leave them wanting more," is a truism from many (most) forms of entertainment. The epilogue did put a bit of a kink in the happy mood the main body of the story had kindled in me.


    3. The current ending wasn't the original one? Although I didn't know that, I can't say I'm surprised.

    4. I have to disagree here. Prior to the last chapter _Hard Reset_ was an entertaining but ultimately forgettable time loop story, easily eclipsed by _The Best Night Ever_. It's the last chapter - the "what really happens after the credits roll" chapter - that makes this story something special.

  2. Shouldn't that be Can't Choose Your Family? And with Thor being in pop culture since at least the 60s, who doesn't have a passing familiarity with Norse mythology?

    I actually haven't heard of The Flight of the Alicorn. Not sure how I missed that, but it sounds interesting. To the queue!

    Hard Reset sounds a bit like that Source Code film

    1. Marvel's Loki is not known for turning into a mare. :B Mythological knowledge beyond comic book-based movies is recommended.

    2. Oh, how wrong you are! Loki's taken on female form more than once, notably as Lady Sif and the Scarlet Witch. I don't have my old comics from the 60s anymore, so I can't check, but I think I recall Loki taking on the form of Jane Foster. Don't quote me on that, though

      Also, there are many other examples of Norse mythology in pop culture besides Marvel's comic books, including D&D, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Odin Sphere, Tolkien... I think I've made my point

    3. >female form

      >not a horse

      Your argument is invalid! >:V

      Though I should have been more precise; I was talking solely about Marvel's Loki as he's been seen in the movies. If that's really all the more exposure a person has to Loki as a concept, they'll be lost.

    4. This show's ruined me. I read "mare" as "female". And my point was that looking at his portrayal in those new films is too restrictive, as most people would be familiar with him from other sources

  3. Oh man, I still need to finish Flight of the Alicorn. I am two chapters from the finish, but cannot for the life of me find the time to get to them. One day! One day.

  4. Hm. Haven't read any of these (which is almost always the case), but at least I've heard of 3. Flight of the Alicorn is just the type that I'd probably enjoy, but am not willing to invest that sort of opportunity cost. I'm not a particularly fast reader, and something of that length would take my free time for the better part of 3 weeks, at the expense of any reviewing or writing I might want to do.

    Man, Chris and I have remarkably similar tastes and things we notice that we like or dislike in stories. This was recently hammered home by reviewing a story that Chris had already commented on—and finding that when I want to say something, Chris had often covered it already, thus relegating me to more than a few "what he said" notes. And not on cut-and-dried things like grammar, either, since the writer's a good one.

    1. It's always weird to find that another person's opinions are a dead ringer for your own, isn't it? I still can't get over how similar my review of On a Cross and Arrow was to Ezn's. We even used the same Asimov quote!

  5. Flight of the Alicorn has long been a favorite of mine, but I too read it one chapter at a time, week after week, and looking back I think you were right; that really was the best way to read that story.

    Hard Reset is one I've long been curious about, and your review makes me want to read it even more. I'm a big fan of dark humor, so that sounds right up my alley.

  6. Issue "du jure"? I guess that would have to be "du jour" (the French for "of the day"), rather than "de jure" (Latin for "by the law"), right? Sorry, but that's a little confusing.

    1. ...Okay, so it's been almost a decade since my last French class. Better go fix that up.

  7. Still waiting on an opinion on Cry for Eternity that I mentioned last mini review. Kinda want to be proven wrong on my feelings for that one.

  8. Author of Hard Reset here. I know I'm incredibly late to this particular party, but thanks for taking a look at and writing about my stuff.