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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