Much of my fanfic-reading time is filled with 6-star stories, it's true. But sometimes, I want to read fanfics while there are distractions in the area (the TV's on, I'm reading out in public, etc.). Sometimes, I want to read fanfics right before bed, or at some other time when my concentration might be suspect. And sometimes, I just need a change of pace.
Below are links to a few stories I've recently read, complete with a little bit of commentary and a short review. As always, feel free to parse my selection process for insights into the way my mind works and/or to make fun of me for the inevitable word derp or two that's bound to creep in. One thing about writing reviews for an audience with high (linguistic) standards: you'll always hear about it if you use the wrong to(o).
1) The Fight for Cranberry Hill, by Insert Pen Name
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Every winter, the snow shoveled from the Ponyville Schoolhouse's grounds is piled into a icy mountain, perfect for playing on. But Diamond Tiara and her cronies have claimed the inexplicably-named "Cranberry Hill," and the other fillies and colts are determined to wrest from her hooves the snow fort which tops the mound.
A few thoughts: I'm sure all of you who grew up in northern (or southern, I suppose, if you live in that hemisphere) climes will remember the giant snow mounds which cropped up at your school every winter; you know, the ones you weren't supposed to climb on but did anyway. This story draws heavily upon the play-fighting, and sometimes fight-fighting, which surrounded those hills, then adds a heaping dash of strong pony characterizations. The problems with this fic as its written are mostly minor; Pinkie's fourth wall-breaking is very blatant for a story which otherwise eschews random comedy, and Pipsqueak's accent is rendered in a gratingly cutesy manner, for example. But once you get past those surface annoyances, the root story is amusing, enjoyable, and utterly relatable to anyone who's spent a few of their formative winters in White Christmas territory.
Recommendation: Any readers looking for a slice-of-life story which leans heavily on children's tendency to treat the silliest things with deathly seriousness for humor will likely enjoy this.
2) Clop It!, by PrettyMonster
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Celestia decides that all of Twilight's friends are gay, and sends them to straight camp on the grounds that "The Elements of Harmony don't work for fags."
A few thoughts: Pre-Reader Who Likes Sky Pirates provided a glowing quote on the story's EqD page, praising this as a "...fantastic, over-the-top parody." And if you're looking for shock jokes like the line I quoted in the summary, then this fic definitely provides... at first.
Things get strange as the story progresses, and not in a way that pleased me. While it's true that a novel-length story that does nothing but mine comedy from juxtaposing ponies and absurd levels of homophobia (and over-the-top characterizations--Iron Will steals every scene he has in this fic with his belligerent braying) would get old fast, the way Clop It! attempts to address this is by trying to pivot into genuine relationship issues. As you might imagine, a shift of that magnitude doesn't feel natural, and it's awfully hard to reconcile Celestia's absurdist trolling in the first chapter with the revelation later that... well, I won't spoil it, but with the attempt to make her character sympathetic.
Recommendation: If you are looking for absurdist, often tasteless comedy which is risque but not explicit, go ahead and check out the first chapter--it's unquestionably funny, if you find that sort of thing funny (I thought it was funny). Past that, there are more gems scattered throughout the story (again, Iron Will and his coterie), but with them comes a whole lot of reflection and drama which I suspect most readers will find stunningly incongruous rather than effective.
3) The Numbers Don't Lie, by shortskirtsandexplosions
Zero-ish spoiler summary: The CMC discover an ancient artifact that causes a glowing number to appear above the head of every pony in Ponyville, counting the number of times that pony's lied in real time. As you can imagine, this causes some problems.
A few thoughts: This is the sort of premise that could easily be used in the show itself, with a little tweaking, and SS&E shows a nice balance between comic segments (e.g. Rarity's ridiculously inflated counter) and more reflective scenes (anything with Cheerilee), keeping both nicely in balance by maintaining a light comic air throughout. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on Twilight as a paragon of truthfulness--although she's certainly not a dishonest character in this show, the story's justifications for her shock and outrage that anypony would lie feel awfully thin. That being the central conflict of the story, it's rather problematic if her characterization feels weak. I was also a bit disappointed that the fic didn't dive deeper into some of the implications of the lie-detector spell, and how the number might affect one's day to day life (Rarity provides virtually the only glimpse of this, and only in passing), but that wasn't really the focus of the story. Writing doesn't need to comprehensively tackle the relationship between selective dishonesty in social cohesion in order to be good, after all.
Recommendation: The Numbers Don't Lie provides a good mix of comedy and insight, albeit not of a terribly deep variety in the latter case. Anyone looking for a show-style premise with engaging execution (and who can buy Twilight as an avatar of honesty) should definitely give it a look.
4) Dearth of a Salespony, by Masem
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Soil Tiller is a farmer who's come to Ponyville to sell her exotic fruits, despite the outlandish tales from other vendors concerning how much craziness goes on in that town.
A few thoughts: This is a thoroughly predictable story in many ways; within the first page, it's easy to guess basically what's going to happen, and how the story will end. The only sources of suspense are either trivial, painfully blunt, or both; the way the narrative dances around the name of the particular "exotic fruit" she's selling, all for the sake of a very minor canon tie-in at the end, is more annoying than clever.
That said, there's nothing really wrong with being predictable. Dearth takes a classic, well-worn premise and executes it convincingly and appropriately, using a variety of characters whose voices by and large ring true.
Recommendation: If you're looking for an unexciting but solid story, you may want to look at this one--as fanfic "comfort food," there's certainly nothing wrong with it. Readers looking for something more engaging or unique may find this bland, but that doesn't mean it's bad.
5) Three Hundred and Fifty, by Void Chicken
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Sweetie Belle is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, so Twilight sets out to devise a way to transport her forward chronologically to a time when her condition can be cured. The two end up trapped 350 years in the future, with no way to get home.
A few thoughts: As I was reading this story, I frequently found myself wishing that more thought had been put into the final product at a conceptual level. It's not that there was a failure to imagine; the author introduces a great number of additions and advancements to Future Equestria. The problem is that many of these changes are made in a very superficial manner. By way of an example, all food in Future Equestria is grown on hydroponic farms, but after Twilight observes that Applejack would be sad to know that farms aren't a thing anymore... well, that's pretty much it. Given the obvious similarities, I find myself comparing the way food is addressed here to in Asimov's The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, which made a minor point out of similar dietary differences, but managed to both make it part of his unique and heavily realized world and keep the scene itself short and interesting.
The way that the story tries to play with the idea of fixed vs. free time travel is interesting in the abstract, but unfortunately is another example of something that needed more conceptual consideration. Twilight knows academically that time is fixed from the very beginning of the fic, and while there is some show of her (and others) trying to change the past, there's never any suggestion that this could possibly work in the story. As a result of this reader certainty, a lot of the action and decisions become anticlimactic, and though the ending does introduce some twists, it also makes liberal use of the so-called "idiot ball," which is passed freely between multiple actors over the course of scant pages.
Recommendation: One thing I will definitely say for this story: it's not afraid to shake up the staus quo, and the direction the author takes the story is often pleasantly unexpected. Still, there were a number of poor decision of the story idea-level which kept me from enjoying this story as much as I'd have liked to.