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As was brought to my attention recently when someone asked me why I never give stories more than three stars, it's been a while since I came across anything that really blew me away in my (nearly complete!) journey through the 6-star stories. Mid-February was the last time I gave a story four or five stars, in fact. Will this be the fanfic (or pair of fanfics, as the case may be) that breaks the slump? Find out after the break.
Impressions before reading: The story description and tags don't seem, at first glance, to mesh well (saying someone is "condemned to a fate worse than death" seems to me to take an awfully liberal view of what's entailed by the "normal" tag). Beyond that though, there's not a lot to say going in. Past the original work, there are two sequels; the second sequel is incomplete and looks like it's staying that way, so I'll leave it alone and review the first two works seperately (POST READING EDIT: Actually, I'm going to put them together--there's just not enough to say about one that isn't true of the other).
Zero-ish spoiler summary: (The Vagabond) A mysterious pony, suffering horrible injuries, stumbles into Ponyville one day. Twilight and company care for him, while learning of his mysterious, tragic past.
Thoughts after reading: Even considering the wordcount of the fics, this review has taken me a while to get finished. The reason is that, frankly, I didn't want to keep reading after the first chapter. But I did, and here's my conclusion: I have literally nothing nice to say about these two stories.
Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. I can honestly say that I've read stories that had worse editing, worse canon characterizations, more hackneyed plots, or which I personally found more unenjoyable than this one. Heck, I could say all that even if I were just comparing it to the 6-star stories I've reviewed. But the fact of the matter is, there was not one thing about reading these that I can honestly say I liked, or even that I thought was done well--a relatively rare feat for a fanfic of any sort.
The problems start with the technical; although actual misspellings are rare--not absent, but rare--punctuation throughout is a weak point in the story ("Lemon Lime took [his hoof] to shake, but ended up being lifted and lowered several times, '...' Lemon Lime's eyes were the size of saucers, '...so would you like to join me?...could use the company.' he said voice cracking."). Run-on sentences are also distressingly common, and paragraphs frequently shoehorn in reams of tangentially related odds and ends, lacking any obvious coherence.
On a larger level, construction is a major issue in the first story (less so in the second, though the problem never disappears). POV changes and time skips regularly occur mid-chapter, without so much as a line break, and these sudden (and on some occasions, not immediately obvious) shifts are jarring and disorienting, often requiring a bit of re-reading to figure out why the story has abruptly jumped from Twilight in her (always capitalized, apparently) Library to Pinkie having a sugar crash some time later.
Characterizations are poor. The main six all appear in the story, and only occasionally act anything like their canon counterparts. Applejack suggesting early on that a doctor shouldn't be called to tend to the (very obviously on death's doorstep) stranger whom Fluttershy had just stumbled upon because it would be too expensive stuck out to me as a particularly dramatic departure from the show's characterization, but all the ponies bear at best superficial resemblance to those who star in FiM. As for the OCs? They are, to a man (pony, whatever) one-dimensional caricatures. Dr. Mend in the first story, and Luna (pre-S2, and at her most angsty) in the second, both come to mind as particularly poor examples.
These characterizations weren't helped by the wooden, tone-deaf dialogue. Speakers frequently launch into mini-soliloquies about their mental or emotional states, and equally frequently resort to hilariously overwrought lines more suited to theatrical parody than an ostensibly dramatic fanfic ("'Let me die!' he screamed, 'I can't take it anymore! It's all too much!" he gasped, "I didn't mean to! I DIDN'T MEAN TO! Oh, Celestia! I killed her! She was my only friend. I LOVED HERRRRRRRRRRRR!'").
As for the plot? Without saying too much, both stories trade on really dark premises--and in the case of the first story at least, much darker than I suspect the author intended. However, these exceedingly disturbing setups (the first story, for example, posits that murderers in Equestria are condemned to be tormented by the vengeful ghost of their victim, an that few ponies so cursed survive more than a few months themselves) are never really addressed, nor worked into the larger setting of Equestria. Plenty of fanfics have shown that it is entirely possible to deal with adult themes without breaking suspension of disbelief, but the effort to meld the tone of the show and those themes is utterly nonexistent here.
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
I really can't think of anything positive to say about this story that isn't just, "well, it's better at x than this other fic..." If that isn't damning with faint praise, I don't know what is.
Recommendation: I don't recommend this story. There are worse things to read, sure, but hey: I don't recommend them, either.
Next time: Pony Psychology Series, by Saddlesoap Opera