Saturday, March 16, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 137: The Somewhere Cycle; Volume 1: "Wander and Green Brier"

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

As those of you who follow along at home may have noticed, The Somewhere Cycle etc. (jeeze, that's a long title) isn't actually a 6-star story on EqD.  So why is it getting reviewed here?  Because PresentPerfect, one of the two people who are getting FABULOUS PRIZES after bidding on my services for the Las Pegasus auction, requested it!  As part of the prize, he got to request that I post about a particular subject, and this is the message he sent me:

Chris, I would like you to review the story "The Somewhere Cycle: Volume 1" by the Descendant. I guarantee it would have been 6 stars on EQD had anyone actually voted on it.

That's good enough for me!  So for today, we're going to pretend that this story had gotten the prerequisite 50 votes back in the day, and I'll be reviewing it as such.  Click below the break to see what I think.

Impressions before reading:  TD is one of the better-regarded authors in the fandom, and has written multiple stories which I reviewed on this blog.  Given that, it's only natural that I am expecting quality work at this point.  This one I haven't previously read, but considering how well I liked A Cup of Joe (another military-related story by the author), I've got high hopes for this one.

Besides, if PP specifically wanted me to review it, it can't be that bad... right?

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Wander and Green Brier are two earth pony officers in the Equestrian army.  They are also both military horses in our world.  This is the story of their strange dual existence.

Thoughts after reading:  In this story, there's never any explanation for why or how the two ponies in question live at once on Earth and in Equestria, and under the circumstances that's absolutely the right choice.  This story isn't about how or why; it's about who.  Specifically, it's a portrait of two historical figures, glimpsed through the eyes of their horses, and reflected in the characters of those same horses as sentient ponies.  Nothing about that demands a logical explanation; indeed, to try and provide one would do nothing more than call the framing device into question.  The Somewhere Cycle wisely focuses on the questions that actually matter to the story it's trying to tell, instead of getting bogged down in explications and justifications.

Before I get too far into this review, I want to point out that much of the pleasure of this fic is derived from discovering which historical horses Wander and Green Brier are supposed to be, and then matching up their blurred, sub-sentient recollections with real-life history.  I'd imagine that anyone with a basic grasp on US history should be able to figure out who the protagonists are by the end of the first chapter, but for those who are still floundering, a quick glance through the comments section on the EqD page will give you the answer.  In any case, the time period in question is one I've been a casual student of in the past myself, and The Descendant's historical knowledge and sense of the time are both impeccable.

Occasionally problematic, though, were his attempts to mesh the linguistic tone of that time with the Equestria of the show.  Both Green Brier and Wander narrate and speak in the vernacular of the era (Green Brier does, anyway; Wander's voice varies quite a bit, both in accent and lexicon), which is a little jarring when Twilight and company all appear in the story, what little dialogue they have a marked contrast in its modernity.

The story alternates in quick bursts between the two ponies/horses, which works well in for the most part.  By providing their stories in alternating segments, rather than in longer narrative blocks, the commonalities and connections which the author tries to draw between the two is emphasized.  However, it does lead TD into a pitfall which I've observed in some of his other stories: a desire to tie every detail, no matter how insignificant, together.  The most overt example of this is that, through the first quarter of the story or so, there's a repeating pattern in the narrative of Green Brier's narration, then Wander's narration, and then a shared line.  These shared lines quickly go from clever to forced and irritating, though thankfully they're largely discarded in the later parts of the story.

There are some minor editing problems (mostly in Wander's segments, for some reason), though for the most part they're infrequent enough to ignore.  The only consistent issue is tense slippage, which is admittedly a pretty significant annoyance to me.  The canon ponies are all pretty well written--which, as mentioned above, makes them a very strange contrast to the protagonists in terms of contemporaneity of voice--although Luna is of the pre-S2 variety ("Luna is so frail, almost fragile..."), if for some reason that bothers you.

But although there are some problems making the transition to Equestria, this story shines when it turns to the pastures and battlefields of the real world.  As I said before, TD has a knowledge of history which shines through, unimpeded by the limited comprehension of his narrators, and this sense of history pervades the story.  Even at its silliest, The Somewhere Cycle carries a certain heft.  It's a story that invites thinking; not thinking about the conceit, but thinking about the characters and their historical doppelgangers.  There are some genuinely touching moments scattered about this work.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Although linguistic and tonal consistency aren't always the author's friend, this story is far, far better than a piece with its premise has any right to be.  It is intelligent, solid in both its history and characterizations, and just generally a fascinating piece to read.

Recommendation:  Anyone with even a passing interest in US military history will want to give this a look.  Readers who are looking for something more show-tone, or at least something which meshes faultlessly with the Equestria we've seen on TV, might be disappointed, though.

Next time:  Anthropology, by JasonTheHuman


  1. I went and looked at the Wikipedia article for said famous war horse, and when I found Mr. R. Edward Lee's quote that read,

    "If I was an artist like you, I would draw a true picture of Traveller. . .Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth, and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold; and the dangers and suffering through which he has passed. He could dilate upon his sagacity and affection, and his invariable response to every wish of his rider. He might even imagine his thoughts through the long night-marches and days of the battle through which he has passed. . ."

    I imagined The Descendant sitting at his computer before writing this story and reading that, then slowly sitting up, a smile growing wider and wider on his face as the possibilities of such an implication dawned on him like some sort of glorious revelation, and muttering proudly to himself, "I'm a poet."

    Haha... oh imaginary The Descendant from the past who lives in my head, you really are so winsomely audacious.

  2. "Before I get too far into this review, I want to point out that much of the pleasure of this fic is derived from discovering which historical horses Wander and Green Brier are supposed to be, and then matching up their blurred, sub-sentient recollections with real-life history."

    You see, that was the big problem for me with this story. Since I only know the absolute basics of the American Civil War, the constant references to historical events in it were pretty much lost on me. I was still able to get to know the original characters and enjoy their interactions in Equestria, but the scenes on Earth felt like they could only be enjoyed by those who know something about the military history of the war.

    It's a shame too, because (just like everyone who posts on this blog) I really like The Descendant's stories. This is the only one of his that I've read and not properly enjoyed.

  3. I'm actually not familiar with the horses in question, unfortunately. I feel really bad for Traveller, though. According to his Wikipedia page - and I suppose this makes sense, considering his status as a war horse - he was a gelding :(

    Ooh, Anthropology? I've been looking forward to that one! There've been so many references, I have to know whether it's worth reading or if it's just another My Little Dashie/Past Sins

  4. I feel like my overwhelming British-ness is a significant disadvantage here.

  5. I like good things. >:|

    This was the first story I read by the Descendant. It was all at once, while I was sick, lying in bed. I was in tears by the end. He was the first author who was able, at a time when such stories were both commonplace and detestable, to bring war of any sort to Equestria and make it work. I still hold this up as my number one fic in the fandom.

    Also, I thought it was fairly obvious that the gist was that Wander and Green Brier had been those famous American horses in another life and could remember those lives clearly. (I, for the record, don't have the pinpoint sort of historical knowledge necessary to have pieced together who, exactly, they were. Even by the end, I knew them both merely as "so and so's horse".) Granted, I have no idea how true that interpretation is, but I didn't find the setup confusing in the least.

  6. Ah, Chris, there is some pretty distasteful spam here. Any chance of getting rid of it?

    Regarding this story, I agree with your review. It's a story I very much enjoyed reading, but it's not on the top tier of "T.D. stories" I keep in my mind.

    1. But who doesn't like spam spam eggs and spam spam with lobster spam spam spam?

  7. Woo. Anthropology next. I'm expecting a heavily mixed reaction. This is a story popular due to it's fanon pandering, but quite a story sprung from that simple concept: Lyra sits funny.