Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mini-Reviews Round 7

Do you ever have one of those moments where you're staring at your computer screen, and you know academically that you should be typing, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect between your brain and your fingers?  I've been having a lot of those moments, lately; hopefully, it doesn't linger.

Click below for my slightly-longer-in-production-than-should-have-been-strictly-necessary thoughts on a few fanfics I've recently read.  As always, these are reflective of my casual reading experience, rather than any concerted effort on my part to delve into the stories' fundaments, but hopefully they're still enough to inform your ponyfic experience.

1)  The Syndicate, by Bok

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The main six's pets run the mafia.

This is their story.

A few thoughts:  I didn't make it very far into this one--only through the first chapter, barely a thousand words deep.  While there was nothing in that first chapter that really set off any alarms as far as plot goes, I was pretty disappointed by the quality of writing.

It's not that it's terrible--there are many, many worse examples out there--but the errors made tended to be the type which impeded readability.  When authors do things like mix up "its and "it's" (I'm looking at you, Thanqol) or "whose" and "who's" (I'm looking at you, um, me) that annoys me, and it can definitely pull you out of a story, but those are problems that don't really inhibit comprehension.  When I kept coming across lines in The Syndicate like "He opened his eyes to expect some giant muscle-bound pegasus ready to deliver the final blow, but instead there laid only a scrap of paper," on the other hand... I can pick up the gist well enough, but I consistently found myself re-reading sentences to try to parse the author's exact meaning, trying to figure out through context exactly what was going on.  That's not a good thing.

Recommendation:  Again, I didn't get nearly far enough into this story to speak to its actual story.  But readers put off by awkward, unwieldy, or just plain incorrect phraseology will want to skip this in any event.

2)  Biblical Monsters, by Horse Voice

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Two men, manning a remote lighthouse alone save for each other, discover that a purple winged unicorn has appeared outside their home.

A few thoughts:  This reminds me very much of a collection of short stories I read a few years back by an author whom I cannot for the life of me recall.  Every short story in his book was full of dark, vivid characters who existed in a morally dubious universe wherein their actions took on an air of tragic necessity despite being gruesome, unethical, repugnant, or worse (depending on the exact story).  Anyway, that pretty well sums up what's going on here: two complicated, ambiguous men are trying to make momentous decisions as they view the situation through the prisms of their own biases and expectations, some stated, some merely implied.

Recommendation:  It's a pony on Earth story, in case you didn't get that from the description, and it takes exactly nothing from the MLP universe except for the titular "biblical monster."  That said, if you're looking for a bleak but intelligent character study, this is an excellently constructed short story which practically screams "literary."  And taken in that context, I absolutely loved it.

3)  The Celestial Mechanics of Midsummer, by TwilightFlopple

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A story of Luna's reintegration into Equestria, told from Celestia's perspective.

A few thoughts:  I can't think of any way to say that I only got halfway through this story without making it sound like I didn't think it was a good story.  Even something fairly neutral that places the impetus on me for quitting--"It just didn't grab me," or somesuch--carries the whispered implication: "...because it was boring/dry/stilted/disjointed/etc."

So let me be perfectly clear: I don't have anything bad to say about the first half of Midsummer.  It's an unfocused jaunt through about a year's worth of time, told in snippets and scenes, with an overriding focus on Luna's growth and adaptation that leaves plenty of room for all sorts of valuable asides; the bits of characterization and worldbuilding that litter the margins of this story are nicely handled, interesting in their own and never swamping the work completely.  It's true that not as much is done with Celestia's perspective as I'd have liked (too often, her thoughts don't rise above the obvious; "Luna alienates ponies when she uses the Royal Canterlot etc." isn't really much of an insight), but it's entirely possible that the second half of the story leans more heavily on her viewpoint.  It just didn't hold my interest, and as hard as it is to express, I mean nothing negative by that.

Recommendation:  I think the reason I couldn't get into the story is because I was trying to read it in spurts.  If you have the time to tackle it in one sitting (it's under 10k words, so that shouldn't require much of an investment) and are interested in some rambling but quite pleasant storytelling, give this a look.

4)  A Hyena's Laugh, by Burraku_Pansa

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Twilight hosts the hyena ambassador, who shares with her a tale about his races famously raucous laughter.

A few thoughts:  This story was written as part of one of The Worldbuilding Alliance's regular challenges, and it shows: it's really more worldbuilding than story.  That said, I've never had any problem with a bit of headcanon musing, as long as it's engagingly presented and makes some nominal amount of sense.

Laugh succeeds on both counts, for the most part.  The poem which makes up a good chunk of the story is pretty well put together, and although the hyena Twilight's hosting doesn't come across as "alien culture" so much as "skillfully obfuscating," Twi's distress comes through clearly enough without becoming an informed element.  I was disappointed that little was done to directly address the predator/prey dynamic, but then I tend to feel that way about all explicitly carnivorous sapients in ponyfiction.

Recommendation:  If you're interested in a short, solid bit of setting expansion, this is an excellent place to start.  Past the worldbuilding though, there's not a lot of depth here, and readers hoping to find out more about Twilight or the ambassador than the hyena's history will probably not find this to be to their tastes.


  1. The pseudonymous author:

    Of "Biblical Monsters" is Horse Voice, not Bad Horse. A damn fine story, though, whoever wrote it.


  2. Dang it, Chris! I finally make some progress with my queue and now you add three new stories to it?

    Well, at least they're short, but now I'm feeling bad for My Little Denarians. It normally wouldn't be so far down, but it's been getting bumped since I decided to grant more weight to length

  3. "Do you ever have one of those moments where you're staring at your computer screen, and you know academically that you should be typing, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect between your brain and your fingers?"

    Welcome to every single time I've written fanfiction, ever.

  4. Could someone please explain Biblical Monsters to me? I read it back when it was coming out and after it ended, opinion seemed to be split between those who 'got' it and those who didn't. I confess that I'm in the second camp. The final chapter is simply mystifying to me. I don't understand why the characters took the actions they did. I felt like the viewpoint character suddenly changed in chapter 4 to a completely different person with no explanation for why. To paraphrase a comment on EqD, it seemed like he went from relatively calm and rational to paranoid in between chapters.

    Not being able to understand why any of the characters in the final chapter did what they did makes the actions there feel like random and senseless violence. At first, I figured that must have been the point: just cheap shock value. After reading this review, however, I feel like there must be something more that I'm missing and I'd very much like to know what it was.

    1. All the cool kids are into bleak, hopeless stories.

      Seriously? Biblical Monsters is the antithesis of MLP:FiM. Some people, when presented with hope, cheer, kindness, etc., seem compelled to take a huge steaming shit all over it. If you like to see wonderful things destroyed, you'll like this story. If not, not.

      Yes, it's well-written. Very. But that's sort of like appreciating the fact that you've been stabbed with a priceless, antique dagger. Not really comforting.


      P.S. Please, let no one take this as an opportunity to try to "argue" me into liking this story. It won't work.

  5. I think that we all can agree that it is very well written, so I will put that aside. I am also ignoring the connections to Captain Cook, since I have no idea who he is. Anyway, in my opinion Biblical Monsters is about expectations.

    Also, spoilers ahead!

    Those two men know nothing of the world of FiM outside Twilight's terrible comments, that wouldn't be out of place coming from any of the 20th century worst monsters. Also, she is an alien with proven magical powers, enough to enforce that in a global scale, besides proving herself a tactical genius.

    We know that is all false. Twilight is no conqueror, just very ingenuous, and ponies aren't gods capable of subjugating the whole human race. They don't. Can you say you wouldn't do the same in their situation? Wouldn't inaction in face of what they believe would be a global cataclysm be worst than murder?

    I love the story, but if it has any significant failures it is on how it disconnects the readers from the characters. But even if you hate it with a passion, I guess there should be something to be admired in just how much it can spark discussion.

    1. Thank you. That actually helps quite a bit. If I understand correctly, the tragedy here is really one of miscommunication. The characters fundamentally misjudged the situation and their following actions were based on that initial problem.

      Mind you, I still have a hard time following the narrator's thought process. I think making the transition in attitude between chapters three and four so abrupt distracted from the theme about misunderstanding. I can't say much as to the characters' actions, but I think it would have been better off with more foreshadowing and a more gradual buildup. If I saw more of the narrator's thoughts on the matter as he came to the conclusion he did, I probably would have had an easier time following it. The way it was done, most of my attention was focused on having the metaphorical rug pulled out from under me. It was hard to realize that a miscommunication had even occurred when I didn't really understand the character's motivations.

      I think this is related to what you were referring to about disconnecting the readers from the characters.


    Regarding "Biblical Monsters", I've often felt like the big issue people seem to have with this story is one of expectations, though perhaps I'm wrong with this. A number of readers seemed to see the first couple chapters as a set-up for "rationalism vs. zealotry", and when that wasn't what materialized, some readers became unhinged. (Mind, I'm not saying this is true of anyone here, but a couple commenters in the original Fimfiction story seemed to become positively livid that the story didn't become a simple rationalism good vs. religion evil morality play) I get the feeling that a number of people, while not reacting quite as poorly, still felt a similar sort of disconnect, though.

    I always find this a little fascinating, assuming that my understanding of the phenomenon here has any merit, because I never read the narrator as being any sort of great rationalist. He's not in some sort of intellectual rebellion against his partner's attitudes, he just feels differently. He's a bit reminiscent of the Fred MacMurray character from "The Caine Mutiny" to me, though I suspect that reference is lost on most people. He's never portrayed as a good man, just affable, and he's juxtaposed with someone we're led to expect will be a villain. When it turns out that the narrator is the real villain, well, one of two things seems to happen: either the reader is thrown so forcibly from the story that they have a pronounced and immediate negative reaction, or the reader sees the shape of the narrative come into clearer focus and is made to reevaluate their earlier judgments – which is often the mark of a good piece of fiction.

    Personally, I love "Biblical Monsters" and for basically the same reason I love "The Caine Mutiny". It makes me reevaluate my own moral identification. The narrator seems so sympathetic, and yet he turns so smoothly from sympathy to monstrosity, and in a way I find entirely consistent and believable. He's demonstrated intellectual cowardice early on in the story, so it's no surprise to see him be governed by it at the story's crucial moment.

    It's not a pleasant read, but it's a very good one.

  7. So, given the other comments, I figured I really ought to read Biblical Monsters. As I suspected, there is really very little I can say that's suitable for a comment thread on a pony blog.

    Nicely written, but as a moral or intellectual piece it's about as worthwhile as a chocolate teapot.

    Scratch that, I could eat the teapot.