Monday, March 11, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 136: Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts

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

If you haven't already, you all might want to check the comments section on my most recent post.  There's a... thing being created down there, and I don't think I'm up to the task of describing it.

Looks like everyone's having fun, though, and who doesn't like fun things?

Speaking of fun things, click down below the break to read my review of Grey Prophet's Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts.  After all, what's more fun than a fanfic review?

Impressions before reading:  This one has the additional tags "political" and "history," which sounds like my kind of story; the meshing of great events and byzantine bureaucracy provides fertile ground for intrigue and intelligent surprises, two things I'm very partial to in stories.  Looks like the author began writing this before season two, so I suspect we're in for some S1 Luna goodness.  But, if the description is anything to judge by, I doubt this story's going to fall into the "sad Luna" trap.  Overall, I've got high hopes going in.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Princess Celestia mysteriously vanishes, and ponies across Equestria begin to panic.  Luna, meanwhile, finds herself under suspicion ("Nightmare Moon has returned!" etc.), and turns to Twilight and her friends for help finding her sister, and holding off angry, suspicious royal guards.

Thoughts after reading:  Author tracts occupy a strange middle ground, it seems to me, between fiction and nonfiction.  As an attempt to showcase and (typically) to justify a particular moral or political creed, they demand to be judged on the basis of their underlying principals, and they logic which is used to validate them.  And yet, these works are also supposed to be cohesive narratives.  That's a delicate balancing act to say the least, and although some authors can pull it off (George Orwell, Charles Dickens, and some of C.S. Lewis's works all spring to mind), more often than not an author tract turns into nothing but a bunch of straw men parading out self-important and ill-supported monologues at the expense of the story.

Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts is an unabashedly ideological work, using the chaos surrounding Celestia's disappearance as an excuse to discuss rights of governance and the morality of subjugation.  Now, that's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't think it's a bad thing, in and of itself.  What matters is the execution.

First, the good: Grey Prophet diligently ensures that multiple sides of every debate are heard, and are represented reasonably and intelligently, if not necessarily positively.  Failing on this count is a shockingly common mistake in this type of writing, and moreover one which can quickly destroy the appeal of a work.  It turns an intelligent debate into an echo chamber, where only the same talking points are endlessly heard, never to be challenged effectively.  This story makes sure that all the ponies--royalists and republicans, pacifists and preemptive strikers--act the way they do for reasonable and sensible (or, in the case of the more deranged characters, at least believable) reasons, and that the ideological underpinnings which guide them aren't written off or brushed aside as mere ignorance.

Unfortunately, Frigid Winds (for some reason, I keep thinking the word is spelled "fridgid," and spellcheck keeps having to correct me) falls into another trap common to this type of story: it lets the story itself languish in favor of grandiose speeches and lengthy discourses.  Although it never rises to Randian levels, much of this story is devoted to characters expounding upon the rights of ponies, the psychology of frightened mobs as it related to martial duties, and so on.  Bad enough is that these speeches often come at wildly inappropriate times (a fact which is actually lampshaded late in the story, when Twilight is supposed to be hiding from a pony, but ends up revealing herself because she can't bear not to debate his moral proclamations), but there's also a distressing sameness to these parts of the story.  Character vocabulary becomes notably uniform in these sections, especially for those arguments which the author seems to favor.  At times like this, the story becomes so tangential to what's been written that it feels superfluous, which is never a good thing.

And, in case I need to say it, pacing suffers throughout.  That's pretty much a given, when there's a new bit of philosophical discourse seemingly every other page, without regards to the rise or fall of action.

The story does have some editing problems, as well; although it's mostly in the early going, there's a fair amount of missing/incorrect punctuation.  Moreover, there's some odd formatting issues with the first chapter--random line breaks and the like.  On the stylistic front, dialogue sometimes becomes difficult to follow, as the author goes a dozen or more voice switches without any attribution.  And the narration frequently resorts to regurgitating character rational laundry-list-style ("[Dash] felt a wave of anxiety pass through her, and it wasn't out of any concern for her safety. No, she was conflicted over whether she should listen to Twilight's letter and avoid the guard or give into her irrational temptation to race him. Rainbow Dash knew that there were few pegasi faster than the Royal Guard; it was not uncommon for veterans from the corp. to join the Wonderbolts or vice versa. It would be the ultimate test for the young aerial daredevil. Despite the possibility of setting up a match in happier times, Rainbow Dash was an impatient opportunist at heart. Her arrogant confidence also prodded her on..."), which exacerbated the sense of dullness created by the frequent monologue breaks.

Oh, I should add that one of the main characters is a brutally violent, foul-mouthed misogynist, in case excessive swearing or otherwise disgusting personalities in a major character are deal-breakers.  While his role within the story made sense from an ideological standpoint, there was nothing about him that I thought benefited the story itself, or even felt particularly "pony."  And when a character's narrative function is entirely subsumed by the author's desire to moralize, that's the sign of a failed author tract.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

Truthfully, I didn't feel I wasted my time reading this story.  There were a few bits that made me stop and think; Grey Prophet clearly put a lot of thought into the reflections and debates which fill this story.  But by any measure, there are a lot of problems with this story as a story.

Recommendation:  Fans of stories like Starship Troopers, Atlas Shrugged, and the like may find this to their tastes, but anyone who isn't interested in moralizing at the expense of the narrative should steer clear.

Next time:  The Somewhere Cycle, Volume 1: Wander and Green Brier, by The Descendant

Surprise!  We're doing something a little different next.  Don't worry, all will be explained come review time.


  1. I don’t think I’ve had a fanfict that’s stayed on my to-read list as long as this one (in about at most a week, it would have been a year and half since it was added). Normally, that means the intro didn’t grab me enough to read while it was updating, but it wasn’t bad enough to drive me away. Having said that, what’s past the first chapter contains things that are capable of doing one or the other, one more common.

    One of the bigger problems I had concerned the depiction of Pinkie. While Pinkie is meant to be charismatic in the show, last episode aside (and this fanfict was competed before then), her ability to influence others never seemed to be supernatural or irresistible. There are two parts in this story where Pinkie gets a mob of Ponyvillians to calm down after the military occupies the town and a squad of soldiers to have smores with her and her friends after they were simply by telling them to. Those combined with a pointless scene (and sadly, this fanfict has quite a few parts, mainly at the last few chapters) where Pinkie consults the different “guides” in her mind, left me with a rather negative attitude to the character’s presentation here. Thankfully, most of the canon characters (I’m not including Luna or Celestia here because they are far more like OC’s here) were well done for the situation they were, most of the time. I thought Applejack’s distrust towards Luna and others over what happened at the farm was well-done, and even Rainbow’s dumb decision to have a race with a guard was something that could see the character doing. I say most of the time because there were definitely moments or lack of moments that had troubled (to state one, Twilight never showed any concerned for Spike’s well-being when she was on the run, and too be honest, that was incredibly troublesome because he was probably the quickest way they could have possibly find Celestia, at the very least it was something worth doing by either side).

    1. The OC characterizations are tougher for me to judge. They’re not bad, just not very interesting at times (mainly because I found quite a few to be highly disagreeable). I will admit that my favorite parts of this fanfict often involved them, mainly when neither princess was in the scene (or Blackteeth). I also think that Grey Prophet struggled with the whole gray morality aspect that he/she/it was going for. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but I was never really convinced that the side I took was really wrong and that the other side was right in the given situations (more so with Ponyville because there was hardly any sort of rioting going on like with Canterlot). But the two characters that I think really suffered were the presentation of Celestia and Luna. I found neither one to be empathetic. Luna is too much of teenager that never grew up or learned how to be responsible in the grand scheme of things, while Celesita is far too much of a manipulative bitch that has such a low opinion on everyone else (read: mere mortals) and is unable to see them as anything but children needing discipline, the kind of person who would hold everything back into the dark ages. Given the fact were suppose to find some grayness between the two sisters, we should be able to gain our empathy and respect both of them and their viewpoints of ruling Equestria. Instead, I can way away with neither thought, but instead disliked both even more.

      Sadly in the end, I feel the flaws of FWBH bring it down. This more or less occurs beginning with the end of chapter 11. That’s when the fict suffers two moments, one of which screamed of Tolkien and his darn eagles. It also leads to some rather pointless backstories to some of the military characters that honestly felt the writer just thought, “Oh I need to get the reader to like these characters now they’re working with the main cast,” or to put it another way “too little, too late” (I’ll admit that Braveheart’s was one the more interesting parts of the story, but it still ate up time that could have been used for something more plot relevant).
      Then we come to the end and let me just say that my reaction wasn’t that much different to the end of “Mickey Mouse in Death Valley”, that is I wanted to take the main instigators of the whole thing, line them up against a wall, and then fire upon them with every word I’ve got for their selfish, lack of concern for others, and sheer dumbness of their actions all to prove a stupid point. Then I would kill them. That is a horrible way to end any story.

    2. This is sad, but I'm really hoping you just started a huge LotR debate. Please, dear God, let Chris have strong opinions on why the eagles weren't a viable option!

  2. "Fridgid" looks kinda Norse to me. I like it!

    I've been meaning to read Starship Troopers for the longest time, but my library doesn't have a copy. I loved the movie (yes, I know they're very different). The one political book that I absolutely hated was Huxley's Brave New World. With the exception of those last few chapters featuring Mustapha Mond, I really don't get why it's so popular. Orwell was much better

    1. Oh my god, I know. Whatshisface insisting on the purity and genius of Shakespeare just made me want to roll my eyes so hard they stabbed into my brain and gave me an aneurysm.

    2. If you are interested in dystopian future as sociopolitical allegory fiction, my favorite of the genre is We by Evgeny Zamyatin. I believe it predates both Orwell and Huxley, and I just find it a much more interesting story.

    3. Indeed, it does. Orwell wrote 1984 as a modern retelling of We and once accused Huxley of plagiarism.

    4. In retrospect, it was kinda funny that a prude like John the Savage would be such a fan of Shakespeare and his unstaunched wenches :}

  3. It's also funny that Orwell would accuse Huxley of plagiarising "We" for "Brave New World" when that's an accusation that's been leveled just as often against "1984". There's a nice treatment of that subject in "Billion Year Spree" by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove.

    Anyway, combine "1984" and "Brave New World", and you'd have the makings of the ultimate dystopian novel. "1984" has the political side, the oppression by a class that, once in power, will never let go, and "Brave New World" has the thought that a dystopia need not be forced upon humanity - we might choose it for ourselves.

  4. When I finished this story, I was damn near insulted.

    These author tracts as you call them, (That's the first time I've heard that phrase) I don't like 'em. But you know what? It didn't seem like one at first. Stuff was happening! Celestia was disappearing. The mane six were going through interesting lengths to gather together and I like how one's actions affected others far away. It also left me in suspense, asking many questions, mostly what the hell happened to Celestia. I suppose that is what kept me reading, mostly. Sure there was that philosophical stuff going down, but I didn't pay that much mind to it as it didn't seem that invasive. Perhaps I just got selective memory. But as the story went on, it became impossible to ignore and needlessly florid. Notably, I believe, around the time the Everfree Forest started getting involved. It's been a while, so my memory's a bit fuzzy on that. As you have said, these philosophical speeches popped up at wildly inappropriate times. In fact, I think 'wildly' is an understatement. Oh no! It's a giant enraged dragon bent on killing us all! Here's an idea: Let's have a philosophical debate with it. Every single one of us has to participate!

    You know what else I don't like? Character back stories, especially as used in this fic. They mean little to nothing to the story at hand and as Bugs said above me, also came at inappropriate times.

    And then after getting though all that, we find out what happens to Celestia. I don't even remember it clearly as I'm pretty sure it was buried within another outpouring of philosophy, but I do remember the reason sure seeming insipid. Not nearly enough payoff for having read such a lengthy thing.

    But you know, that's just me.

  5. Chris:

    I really enjoyed your critique of my first (and only) fanfic, it's exactly the kind of analysis I've always wanted to hear back from readers. You have an apt eye; the story is indeed subservient to the ideological issues it contains. This was, sadly, intentional. The main reason I wrote this story is because I lack an ideological core, not because I don't believe in anything, but because I don't trust any political/social idea that claims to be "right". I wrote this story in the hopes that I could show a "grey" moral landscape (which, as you noted, was poorly executed) and clarify my positions better to myself by arguing all sides. In essence, a lot of the story could be called therapeutic writing. One that went on a lot longer than what I had originally planned...but you can probably tell that by the painful pacing. The characters, as you say of one, were actually all subsumed to my desire to "moralize" a particular position. The ideas I had attributed to them became more important to me than their characters, so I can see now how that hurt the story.

    Although I think you nailed the head on the nail with your review, there is one thing with which I take issue. If it ever seemed that I'm overly siding with one position over another, it's only because I believed it to be the harder case to make (e.g. Celestia's enlightened despotism is a harder sale than democratic rule). The only moral I really had was an incredibly bland and uninspiring one: existence is overly complex to the point where noble, inviolable concepts like truth and justice are utterly subjective. Makes for an insipid ending with little payoff, no? I feel kind of bad for my readers because I never had anything to give them to begin with. Just an exploration and a bit of reflection, nothing much.

    As for formatting, I didn't have Word, so the file uploads came up a bit weird at times. I also always said I'd edit them, but I'm bit of a busy person and this is comfortably in the past. I came across this review because I was checking in on my story after a long while away from it. I'm glad I did. Since I wrote this story, I've taken a creative writing class and I feel that I've improved significantly and become more attuned to my weaknesses. This critique of my first work will help me as a writer if I choose to write some more fiction (although, as you perhaps could tell, I'm more of a non-fiction person).

    Once more, thanks for taking time for writing such a good review. I almost want to include it at the end of the story!

    Grey Prophet