Monday, June 17, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 145: Pony Psychology Series

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

Sometimes, when I read about stuff like this, I think it might be fun to go to a con or large meetup sometime, to put a few faces to (pen)names, go to some panels, and generally be in the presence of people who share this particular hobby of mine.

Then I realize that, even for the closest large convention, the costs of food, travel, lodging, ticket, and incidentals wouldn't be much less than a thousand bucks.  Oh well.

Below the break, my review of Saddlesoap Opera's Pony Psychology Series and sequel.

Impressions before reading:  I've heard a lot of good things about these stories, though I've never read them myself.  According to the people who like them, they're supposed to be an intelligent, adult take on the FiM cast.  That all sounds well and good, but it does make me a bit leery all the same; "intelligent, adult take" is sometimes code for "horribly out of character and inexplicably grim."  Based on the reactions I've seen, though, I'm optimistic that that won't be the case here.

NOTE: The top review is only of Pony Psychology Series. The sequel is done separately below.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Twilight and her friends struggle to come to grips with their wants and needs, for themselves and for one another.

Thoughts after reading:  This is actually six interconnected stories, about each of the main six.  As far as the plot of each and all goes, I'd say that "intelligent, adult take" sums it up pretty well.  Series is about the ponies dealing with things like depression, addiction, and other serious problems, but it treats those issues seriously and respectfully--enough to set it apart from many "mature" fics by itself.  Moreover, the author ties these issues to the characters through their canon characterization, in ways which are for the most part believable.  The Equestria which Twilight and the rest inhabit in this story may be more "realistic" than the Equestria of the show, but the fact that it's still definitely Twilight and the rest dealing with that Equestria (rather than a group of unconvincing doppelgangers) makes the decidedly grown-up tribulations which the ponies confront (mostly) easy to swallow.

Part of that strong sense of character comes from voicing; the vocabularies and vocal mannerisms of each of the major characters is deftly captured.  Unfortunately, with this strong dialogue comes some absurdly over-the-top accents.  Applejack is actually one of the least objectionable here; Carrot Top makes her sound positively refined by comparison.  Be that as it may, dialogue is strong and clear throughout.

I don't really have much to say about the writing itself, but I did want to mention somewhere in this review that Saddlesoap consistently capitalizes Pony, Earth Pony, Pegasus, and Unicorn.  Kinda bugged me, it did.  Past that though, editing and grammar are excellent.

With this story come three appendixes.  First, there's one from the perspective of Princess Luna (listed as the "Alicorns" chapter), which sheds a bit more light on Twilight's chapter and which expands upon the worldbuilding elements in the story proper, specifically regarding the Elements of Harmony and other artifacts.  I highly recommend reading this one as an addendum to the Series.

There's also a Trixie appendix, which is really a completely self-contained story which piggybacks on some of the aforementioned worldbuilding from Luna's chapter.  Although it doesn't really add anything to the loose narrative of the Series, it's written in a similar style, does a wonderful job of capturing Trixie's brashness and ego (this is all pre-S3, of course), and is generally likely to be enjoyed by the people who likes everything else enough to want to read a follow-up in the first place.

Then... there's the Ditzy Doo appendix, the unsurprisingly-subtitled Muffins.

It's really hard to overstate what a disappointment the Ditzy Doo story (like Trixie's appendix, this one is basically self-contained) is, compared to everything which preceded it.  Where everything else in Series tries to hold to a consistent tone of realistic introspection, the better to encourage reader immersion, Muffins wanders between slapstick comedy, full-on action sequences, and Doctor Who crossover-ing.  Where everything else in Series treats its characters' issues with respect and intelligence, Muffins goes with a depressingly ridiculous (by comparison, at least) amnesia plot, which it portrays as unrealistically as the phrase "amnesia plot" should lead one to expect.  Where everything else in Series eschews the maudlin in favor of believable character interactions (save where the maudlinity itself is in-character), Muffins revels in overdramatics of every sort.

So... I'd go ahead and skip that one, if I were you.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Pony Psychology Series accomplishes the difficult task of crafting a "realistic" Equestria, and addressing the main six within that context, without divorcing itself from the show proper.  Further, it's consistently interesting, and believable in its worldbuilding and titular psychology.

Recommendation:  Anyone seeking a story which takes a closer look at what makes the main six tick (circa season 1) should definitely check this out.  Anyone who does so should absolutely follow up with the "Alicorns" appendix, as this builds on the story, and readers who enjoy will probably want to move on to the "Trixie" appendix.  I highly recommend skipping the "Ditzy Doo" add-on, however, unless you have some especial fondness for that character.

Secrets and Lies

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After Discord was defeated, Twilight and company thought they could rest easy... but Discord left behind a "fan..." and dealing with that fan might be more than Twilight can handle.

Thoughts after reading:  As with many sequels, most of the comments on the first story apply to the second.  Voicing is still strong, accents are still overdone (the spa sisters' are to a hilarious degree: "The rocks in the sa-oo-na are hee-ting up," and the like), and the emotional turmoil of the ponies is still presented believably and intelligently... mostly.  How the chaos-keteer and her particular outlook on life fits into the world of Equestria is a bit of a question mark, one which the story never really addresses.  Still, problems like Rarity's struggles to balance sales with quality are thoughtfully examined.

This story does take an unwelcome turn in the direction of full-on comedy, however, and that's not a terribly good fit for an ostensibly serious piece of writing about guilt, madness, etc.  Some touches work, as with a repeated bit where Pinkie's Pinkie Sense keeps going off while she obliviously ignores her sneezing, pinchy knee, and so on.  More often, though, the humor in this story was a distraction, and never more so than with the songs.  Maybe I'm just a grump, but I don't care at all for re-written show tunes dropped into stories in any event, and especially not in something which isn't a full-on random/comedy.

As for the story itself?  It's a bit darker than Series, and ends on an awfully disconcerting note (at least, I found it so).  Twilight is the main player here, though all of the ponies (and their issues) get time--even Ditzy, unfortunately--and her primary issue is pretty heavy, which informs the tone of the entire story.  This is another part of why much of the more overt humor stuck out: in this sequel, the plot got darker, while the window dressing got lighter.

Star Rating:   (what does this mean?)

Other than a less consistent tone and some unfortunate filking of Modern Major General, Secrets and Lies is very similar to Pony Psychology Series in both its strengths and weaknesses.

Recommendation:  Readers who enjoyed the first story should check this one out as well.  Anyone put off by at times mismanaged juxtaposition of heavy drama and goofball humor might find this a bit of a (comparative) letdown, though.

Next time:  Summer Days and Evening Flames (sequels to Heart of Gold, Feathers of Steel), by NickNack


  1. I don’t have a clever way to start this, so I’m going to get to the point: I find the first story (Fluttershy: Origins) to be weak. The other four tales about Twilight’s friends’ various problems are in different levels of quality, but for me they do a number of basic things right that this one does not. First, and foremost, is how they present the character’s mental problem in terms of writing. Saddlesoap decided to present it through a flashback/back-story, and while that would be fine in theory, because it’s so darn short and “telly,” I could not get sucked in. If anything, I found it silly. But in any case, it’s not a story or even character analysis, so much as a character filler or head canon in the form of prose.

    Thankfully, I wouldn’t say the same about the next four parts. They share problems with the previous (I find the quotes that accompany the intro for the Fimfiction version to be pretentious and distracting, for one), but at least I can say they are stories or at least part of the over arching plotline (there’s really not much plot to Pinkie’s beside the fact that she’s depressed). At times, interesting ones. Reading about Dash abusing her friend’s feeling for her or Applejack blurting out her real thoughts (I’m reminded here that Saddlesoap is pretty good at character-based comedy) was such. Usually, this was due to the strength characterization was the strongest point. It wasn’t a stretch to see how, say Rarity, could end up as she did, nor how she reacted. That’s notable, if only because these are far from show like situations.

    Of course, there are parts that don’t work; I find the ending to Dash’s chapter to be cheap attempt at drama and there is a gag in Rarity’s that was meant to play with my gag reflex. I was also disappointed in the shipping aspect; it wasn’t mushy, but it did turn the characters into a bunch of jealous shrews (however in-character that might be, that’s rarely interesting to read about).

    However, once we get to Twilight’s chapters, things take a turn for the worst for me. It turns out that the cause of the madness in Twilight’s friends is due the elements they bear. And to solve that, they need Twilight’s help to get them on the right path, to be the keystone. I get the analogy and how it can be applied to the real world, but I have to ask: why present it like this? Why not make the psychological problems that exist in the characters the result of just their upbringing or their personalities or just stress in general? By making the elements the main cause, it becomes a curse of destiny. That’s not thought provoking, that’s aggravating.

    1. I didn't get the impression that their issues were just the fault of the elements, but instead, that the elements acted as a catalyst for their innate psychological problems to get out of control.

  2. You may not need to budget as much for food as you'd think. I'm normally a pig, but only ate about once a day this weekend at TrotCon. None of those meals were particularly large either. There's not much time for food between all the panels and meeting new people

    You may want to consider looking into smaller conventions. TrotCon had an attendance of about 900 this year, and that was ridiculously fun. Probably moreso (you've just made a mortal enemy, Spell Checker!) than a larger convention, as the greater focus on community over celebrity makes you feel like a part of something and not just a visitor

    And Blueblood Returns? Did you really need to copy-paste such a short note?

    1. Could be I'm not looking in the right places, but I have yet to hear of a convention of any size being held within 400 miles of my home. C'est la vie.

      And... oops.

  3. There are only two of these? Huh. I swear I've seen at least seven other stories around on Fimfiction which claimed to be part of this series. Evidently not, going by the author's page on Those must have been fan sequels. Or I may be thinking of another series. Not sure.

    1. I tend to mix up "Pony Psychology" and "Pony POV" - perhaps the latter is what you were thinking of?

  4. I only read the Fluttershy chapter, and I stopped because it felt fake. Re-reading it now, I have to say past-me got it right. It feels like a sketch of a story; a few ideas typed out that could be the genesis of a narrative, but are presented for the reader to do all the expressive work for themselves. I predict that I would not enjoy reading the rest of the story because the issues Chris found in later chapters and side-stories I can sense the hints of in the Fluttershy chapter.

    1. I got as far as Dash, since both Chris and Bugs said it got better. At Dash's chapter I drew the line. All three chapters were literally just an outline of an idea; there's no meat to it.

  5. Thanks for your detailed and pull-no-punches review - feedback is always welcome!

    Fair cop about the accents - I actually try to keep a lid on them (using "I", not "Ah", etc) compared to some renditions I've seen, but it's always a bit of a balance between capturing unique voices in text and hampering readability.

    I expected a strong reaction to Muffins, which has been immensely divisive over time. I have gotten multiple pieces of fanart and a SONG inspired by that appendix, but it's also been the focus of my most negative reviews. I'd agree with your assessment, honestly: if folks don't like Derpy/Ditzy as the single-mother mailmare fanon version, they likely won't like that appendix.

    I am somewhat surprised you liked Secrets and Lies less than its predecessor; I felt it had a more solid narrative structure from the get-go, due to being planned more carefully.

    I can't really say much about your dislike of moments of humour in a dark plot; I suppose there is no accounting for taste. They were included partly because the show itself tends to swing from silliness to high drama (NMM tries to kill everypony in a landslide, oh and also let's sing about giggling), and partly to avoid the dreaded Darkness Induced Viewer Apathy.

    To be fair, though, I meant Pinkie's Sense moments to come across as increasingly creepy rather than slapstick -- I wanted to capture the tone of her half-mad behaviour in Party of One, where she never does anything DANGEROUS, yet manages to make Dash's blood run cold nonetheless.

    Likewise, the villain's musical number was meant to come across as a sort of in-a-glass-darkly version of Pinkie's impromptu singing. But instead of spreading happiness, she revels in schadenfreude.

    Regardless, you hit the nail right on the head with assessing my intent in both stories: realistically moving the Mane Six into darker, less childish territory, and rendering their behaviour in those deeper waters plausibly. If you think I accomplished that, then I am very pleased.

    Thanks again - your reviews are well-reasoned, and the very picture of "tough, but fair".

    -Saddlesoap Opera

    1. Glad you liked the review, Saddlesoap! I liked reading the story, so I guess everyone comes away happy this time.

      Secrets and Lies was definitely a more cohesive narrative, but I found that didn't particularly impact my enjoyment one way or the other. In this entire set, the narrative exists mostly as a way to pick at the characters and see what makes them tick, after all; I didn't feel that a tighter plot was particularly necessary to Series, under those circumstances.

      I think the reason Pinkie's Sense moments came across as goofy rather than creepy is because you've changed the tone significantly from the show proper. In the show, the Party of One stuff feels disturbing because, as much as anything, of the way it contrasts to everything else that we've seen. Since this Equestria is a somewhat darker, more grounded place, it's the zaniness of her actions that stands out more than the creepiness. Either way though, I still enjoyed it.

      To the larger question about mixing humor and a serious plot: while I don't object to it in principal (how could I, without discarding the vast majority of humankind's literary output?), that humor typically shouldn't come so out of left field that it feels like part of a separate story, which is exactly how the songs made me feel. As you say though that is largely a matter of taste.

      Good luck with your other stories! I really did enjoy this set, on the whole.

  6. Huh, this positive review surprised me. I'm afraid Darkness Induced Audience Apathy just got me when I tried to read this one.

    I mean, showing the story of a mentally disturbed emotional wreckage can be dark, sad, heart-wrenching and, as they say, "intelligent and adult". Showing the story of ten emotional wreckages? That's just too much, thank you. The sheer amount of supposedly unsettling, dark character portrayals were so overwhelming that it (at least for me) became ridiculous. Yes, I'm aware of the in-universe explanation, but it didn't help much, and some of the characters were not even Elements. By the time I reached the Derpy chapter, I was reading it as a comedy, and it actually worked. I still quit before I could've reached Trixie, though.

    Kudos for showing a relationship between Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash that was actually realistic, though! And the Applejack chapter was actually entertaining, I admit.

  7. It has been too long since I have read the fist story to remember the finer details of it. But I do remember enjoying it greatly. I could even tolerate the shipping business, what with me being such an anti-shipping zealot and all. Oh and that Twilight chapter had such marvelous suspense. Oddly enough, I don't remember anything about this Luna chapter, in fact, I'm just now remembering that it even existed. All that said, the Trixie Chapter is definitely what I enjoyed the most.

    Secrets and Lies I remember a little more clearly. I quite enjoyed the ploys of the main antagonist, They seemed almost Joker-esque. And the initial mystery of who it was was handled real well. The characters were all enjoyable to read, and the plot full of such delicious suspense. However, One thing that bugged the snot out of me as I read was how darn gullible everyone was. It kinda hurt the believability of the whole thing. Maybe I'm forgetting something, but I'm pretty sure everypony just instantly bought any outlandish claim that was made. It would really have helped if they had at least asked a question or two before buying into it.

    Oh and racial slurs for unicorns and pegasi are not something I hear much. I like that.

  8. Like you, I've always heard good things about this. I'll have to make it a must-read, I guess!

    Also yay, Summer Days and Evening Flames! :D I edited that.