Friday, May 24, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 143: Heart of Gold, Feathers of Steel

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

You know, it's funny.  Whenever I'm out and about, I'll constantly have inane revelations or tidbits of which I'll think to myself, "Hey, that would be a great for an above-the-break bit!"  But then, when I actually sit down at the keyboard... I got nothin'.

Below the break, my review of NickNack's Heart of Gold, Feathers of Steel.

Impressions before reading:  I have a complicated relationship with this story.  I read Heart of Gold as it was being written, and was quite enjoying it up through chapter four or five, when the author went back and made some revisions which I personally didn't agree with (but which I was apparently in the minority regarding).  I finished that story, and got several chapters into the sequel, before another set of revisions convinced me to just wait until the Nick had a finished product before coming back.  Now on the one hand, it's hard to be upset with someone for wanting to improve their story.  On the other, it is something of a disincentive to pre-completion readership; nobody wants to read the same chapter twice, and authorial tl;drs (I don't recall if Nick used them or not, but plenty of other authors who've re-written their in-progress stories have) are a poor substitute for the ficreading experience.

Well, it's been a long time (this fic was started 'round about two years ago), but the sequel--since split into two stories--is nearing completion, and the original appears to be in its "final" form.  So, I'll be reviewing Heart of Gold now, and coming back to review the two sequels together once they're finished.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Gilda has been living on her own for three years, an outcast from her tribe.  When she decides to visit her only friend, Rainbow Dash... well, you've all seen Griffon the Brush-off.  What you haven't seen is what came before, and what came after.

Thoughts after reading:  One of the things I really liked about the original version of this story was that Gilda's thought processes were intriguingly alien; she was raised in a vicious, brutal culture, and that cultural outlook shown through in her actions.  That aspect of the story has been almost entirely excised from this version, in favor of a softer, more relatable Gilda.  Here, she is a victim of her parents and her society, emotionally stunted but possessing the same (broadly speaking) moral and ethical worldview as the ponies--and presumably, the reader.  This is dangerous territory; "justification fics" are a dime a dozen (though admittedly, most of this fandom's are about Trixie), and all too often degenerate into nothing more than lengthy strings of excuses.  Thankfully, NickNack mostly avoids this pitfall.

While it's true that a fair bit of time is spent explaining how and why Gilda's actions during Brush-off weren't as one-sidedly mean-spirited as they appeared, Heart of Gold doesn't try to absolve its protagonist of responsibility for her deeds, nor does it go out of its way to paint Pinkie and the rest in a negative light.  Although some of Gilda's hand(claw)-wringing over her own actions seems a little too much like it's attempting to mitigate her deeds in the reader's eye, the fic paints a consistent, believable portrait of Gilda which can be matched up with the one seen on TV with little trouble.  This isn't so much a re-imagining of an episode as it is an expansion upon it, which is definitely the right approach for this story.

However, that approach does mean that several scenes lifted directly from the show fall flat.  The scene culminating in Gilda crashing Pinkie's heli-whatever is one which adds almost nothing to the show's portrayal of events; Gilda's perspective is gained, of course, but since her perspective boils down to "Pinkie was annoying the heck out of me, so I kept trying to get me and Dash away from her," that whole segment brings little to the table besides a literal retelling of the show's events.  Thankfully, this was not common to all such show-scenes; the description of Pinkie joy-buzzing Gilda comes immediately to mind as one which repeats show events, but adds interesting and original context to the mix.

Although the first chapter is heavy on needless modifiers, with plenty of "at first"s, "pretty much"s, and the like in places where they added little, writing was a strong point overall.  Gilda's voice comes through clearly, and some of her juvenile word choice in the show is cleverly (if obliquely) addressed as a product of Equestrian not being her native language.  Likewise, the way her isolation has left her mind prone to wandering gives the author both an excuse to dole out some backstory and worldbuilding, and to use the narrative style to show Gilda's mental state.  There's a level of conscientiousness to word choice and story construction here which I appreciated.

Speaking of backstory and worldbuilding, there's a whole lot of it here, too.  The author's griffons borrow heavily from the Klingon's "violent, prideful, and occasionally too dumb to live" cultural playbook, and the bits and pieces of their backstory that we get to see are invariably interesting in their own right.  The fact that Gilda appears to exist, morally and emotionally, outside of that culture does weaken the impact somewhat--it makes her father, and her tribe generally, seem less like they have a foreign worldview and more like they're just terrible people (griffons)--but it does have the advantage of giving readers a relatable view of that society.

The final chapter may seem like an over-long denouement, moving the action away from Dash and Ponyville as it does, but I've always preferred too much settling time after a climax to too little.  Explicitly laying out Gilda's central conflict (via title drop, no less) did seem heavy-handed to me though, especially considering that the rest of the story was content let Gilda's actions and inner thoughts speak for themselves.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Ironically, the close connection to Griffon the Brush-off provides both the story's strongest and weakest moments.  The best paint the events in that episode in a new light, without invalidating or re-imagining anything about them; the worst simply parrot the scenes without any meaningful additions.  But there's a lot more to this story than its canon tie-ins, and Gilda's story is interesting and dramatic in and of itself.

Recommendation:  Readers who are put off by stories which use show episodes extensively will want to avoid this story, but anyone looking for something which expands upon canon in both worldbuilding and character portrayal will find a lot here to like.

Next time:  The Vagabond, by Truthseeker


  1. >I have a complicated relationship with this story.
    Oh, God, tell me about it. I'm never releasing anything serially again.

    >The author's griffons borrow heavily from the Klingon's "violent, prideful, and occasionally too dumb to live" cultural playbook

    >Explicitly laying out Gilda's central conflict (via title drop, no less) did seem heavy-handed to me though
    Ah, this part. It was tricky to balance "dialogue that teaches Gilda a life lesson" with "subtlety," and I erred on the side of... well, heavy-handedness, basically.

    But anyway, thanks for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

    1. I certainly did enjoy; thanks for writing! And in answer to the question below, I'll be coming back to the sequels a couple reviews hence.

  2. Writing about other cultures is a very tricky business if you’re trying use it as a justification for a character’s less than admirable traits, if not reprehensible, traits. On one hand trying to paint a racial, national or ethnic group completely with the black brush (or its polar opposite, the whitewash) is not only shallow and lazy, but it’s immature and offensive. One must remember that that many aspects of our own culture might become just as unacceptable as parts of the Khan led Mongols, the biblical Israelites, the Athenians Greeks, or the antebellum Southern Americans are to us, some hundred or so years from now. At the same time though, there are plenty of cultures nowadays that have parts of them that are so backwards, that to call out on them wouldn’t be a case of being cultural insensitive, so much as justifiably righteous (or sane). Whether it be the various sexists parts of Saudi Arabia (or if you want to go “first world,” Italy and Japan), the numerous anti-gay areas of Africa, or the small-town, sports obsessed mindset that led to the some football players to abuse a girl and the town to defend them by blaming the victim in America. We are still individuals, and just because the culture that raised is wrong in some regards, doesn’t we can pin all the blame on it.

    Hearts of Gold and Feathers of Steel is all about Gilda trying to break the cycle of violence that exists in her family (showing her view from Griffon the Brush-off), and because of her background, she struggles with trying to avoid being just like her brutal father, often having no regret using violence against others, particularly when talking about the past. So, I never really had trouble understanding why Gilda was like she was (why she might think nothing of harming Pinkie at times as opposed to the polite way of getting her to leave), at the same time that doesn’t mean I have to like her or excuse her. That doesn’t mean Nick’s Gilda is a poorly constructed character. Although, there are a couple moments that had me scratching my head (we learn that after her banishment from her tribe (and the terrible beating she receives from her father) that she spends a month in the Farrington hospital and someone has been paying her bill; the fact that this random act of kindness had no effect on struck me as lazy hand wave), for the most part Gilda was well realized, from her doubts and concerns and reflections to her actions and her violence. I didn’t necessarily like her because again, she was too violent (it’s more of what she does at camp than to Pinkie, who at times makes me wish I could do the same).

    1. In addition, there was also my troubles with the last two chapters. Not only did it not make sense from a canon perspective (by the end of Griffon the Brush-off, Dash flat wants nothing to do with Gilda, there would be nothing that cause her to chase after her), but it hurts from a thematic one, that is Gilda officially breaking off from Dash, who in a sense was part of what kept Gilda as she was. She gave Gilda comfort when she really needed, but she also kept the griffin (indirectly) from really trying to expand, I would say Gilda was almost dependent when it came to dealing with her social needs. Personally, I would have left the ending (I liked the fact it was ambiguous on whether or not Gilda was going to get better) with maybe a side goal for Gilda of seeking to be better just to show her friend, instead of more or less reconcilating [I don’t care if Word says this isn’t a word, am I saying it is] the two (empathy and forgiveness are not two of Dash’s strong traits). And while I do like how opened ended the ending was, I really found myself annoyed with rubber mallet lecture that Gilda was getting because I also had to have the damn meaning explained to when I didn’t want it to be.

      None of this really changes my opinion overall of Hearts of Gold, I may not have really liked or as much I wanted, but I still thought it was overall pretty good. This is defintely one of the better fanficts with her that I've read.

    2. Uh...your Word is actually right. Your "reconciliate" is missing the second "i". ;)

  3. I've really gotten into this story since reading it not that long ago (I helped Nicknack edit the sequels c.c). Honestly, I'd say HoGFoS's strength lies in its sequels, Summer Days and Evening Flames. Since the latter just finished being posted yesterday, do you have plans to review them?

  4. "So, I'll be reviewing Heart of Gold now, and coming back to review the two sequels together once they're finished."
    The third story's last chapters were published earlier today. That means that, on the same day this review was posted, both sequels were finished.

  5. I have the exact same story as you, Chris. Started reading when it was still ongoing, started the sequels, then revisions came along, and now I have to do a lot of re-reading.

    Which would be fine if I had the time to re-read it all, but more often than not I don't, and any reading time I get I tend to spend on things I haven't seen before. Which is frustrating, because I really want to get back to where I was before and see how the sequels end.