Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Guest Review: Divergence

On and on the guest reviews go!  Today's entry comes from NickNack, an author and proofreader/editor/fanfic troubleshooter who's turned his critical eye towards an old but well-regarded incomplete fic, Seattle_Lite's Divergence.  He's got an interesting style to it, too; very academic in structure, but still personal.

Review of Divergence, a My Little Pony fanfiction written by Seattle_Lite
(Review written by Nicknack)

Click down below the break for all the review-y goodness!


Divergence by Seattle_Lite is a complex and skillfully written narrative. By exploring the story from a critical standpoint, it can be demonstrated that it is also a high-quality piece of fanfiction.


I first encountered Divergence in June of 2011, but even in its early phases, I held it in high regards. It was a potent blend of an interesting idea and a strong narrative voice. Even in my most recent re-reading of this, I found that I still enjoy the dualistic motifs and the story’s dark, subversive nature. Divergence expands upon the show’s universe by complimenting it in a twisted mirror of tone and theme, and in my opinion, it does it well.

The nature of this review will be twofold. One, it will be to critically evaluate Divergence within several areas related to its quality as a work of fiction. This is the main goal of this review, but my ancillary purpose in writing this review is to recommend that others form their own opinions on Divergence by reading it.
Before I continue, I will give a grain of salt with my recommendation: my own personal tastes of fiction in this fandom are rather broad. In short, I like dark subversions of My Little Pony. The show’s universe is endearing, but ultimately impossible—all of the pain and suffering from reality was removed or reduced in order to appeal to young girls. Seattle_Lite agrees10. I will clarify that I find no intrinsic delight in imagining cute, doe-eyed ponies being ground up or tortured, but rather, I enjoy watching them overcome more substantial and adult problems than “our best friend is having a hard time making dresses for us” or “this slumber party isn’t going like I wanted it to”.
So, if you don’t find fulfillment in reading about ponies enduring huge, catastrophic problems that are ripe with strife, suffering, and violence, I don’t think you will enjoy Divergence. Similarly, if you’re looking for a show that falls in line with the show’s atmosphere and tone, you should look elsewhere.
However, if you are looking for a high-quality fanfiction that balances narrative themes and philosophy that is on par with some published literature, I highly suggest that you give Divergence a try.
Now, I just used the terminology that is central to the primary purpose of this review: “high-quality fanfiction”. As it stands, I would like to give the definitions I will be using for “fanfiction” and “high-quality”:
Fanfiction is, quite simply, a story written in a universe that the author did not originally come up with. By using an existing universe as a framework, an author can both show appreciation for an existing work and take a few shortcuts in the creative process. Instead of starting with a blank slate, the author has a foundation upon which to create something that is (often) an unwitting collaboration with the original content’s creator.
High-quality, when referring to a story, is harder to define. My general criteria for a high-quality story is that it contains a conflict-driven plot and features multi-dimensional characters who respond naturally to their environments. From a technical standpoint, the grammar and syntax should be as objectively perfect as a style guide allows, and the writing itself should flow in a manner that is both poetic and engrossing. I will note that high-quality does not mean perfection, but it is merely a threshold that I believe only a relatively small number of stories breach.
High-quality fanfiction, therefore, is what I call a piece of fanfiction that has holds up to my own personal standard of quality for stories. I hope that by evaluating Divergence to see if it lives up to this standard, I can also demonstrate my standard’s merit.


In order to determine if Divergence is high-quality fanfiction, I need to make sure that it fills the roles of both fanfiction and a high-quality story (remembering that fanfiction is a subset of “types of stories”). First, and easiest, is whether or not Divergence fits the classification of fanfiction. By my own definition of the term, it should be intuitively obvious that a story featuring the main cast and setting of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic counts as fanfiction.
The second classification is slightly more difficult to apply, however. I feel that the best way to determine if Divergence is a high-quality story is to explore various aspects of it that relate to my definition of what a high-quality story is. The aspects of Divergence I will look at are its conflict-driven plot, its characters, and its writing technique.

Conflict-Driven Plot

The plot of Divergence begins with a simple and effective hook: it recounts the scene from Season 1, Episode 2 where Rainbow Dash is tempted by the Shadowbolts. However, it’s quickly demonstrated that this story will travel in a different bearing than the episode did; this titular divergence starts subtly, but grows more and more as the story progresses.
By the time the first chapter ends, it is easy to see that Divergence has a conflict-driven plot. In that chapter, one of the main characters—Rainbow Dash—is given a duty to perform, a goal that she must work towards1. Of course, this goal comes at odds with many of the other characters’ motivations, and Seattle_Lite does a good job at juggling perspectives to show that everyone acts based on their own views on what is best for Equestria.
I will say that one point of conflict that I wish Seattle_Lite brought more to the forefront in this story is the “versus self” conflict. For example, Rainbow Dash is tasked, early on, with stopping her friends from continuing down a path that will literally get them killed1. This is the first point of conflict presented in the story: Dash versus her friends (who don’t entirely believe her), but more importantly, it’s the first step of how “doing the right thing” challenges a lot of Rainbow Dash’s pillars in her life—mainly, her loyalty to her friends, to her country, and even to her childhood heroes. This isn’t to say that there is zero mention of anyone’s self-doubt or personal dilemmas they face, but I think that this story could have done more to show the affects that large-scale conflicts have on people—especially when their personal lives are set on either side of the war.
And make no mistake about it—Divergence is a story about a war. It’s a small war, mind you, but by the end of the fifth chapter, the lines and sides are clearly drawn: there are ponies loyal to Luna, ponies loyal to Celestia, and neutral ponies. Simplifying it, the “Luna versus Celestia” conflict boils down to a pseudo-religious and philosophical discrepancy, with Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle both acting as “prophets” for their goddesses.
If all of this sounds overwhelming for a story as relatively short as Divergence, don’t worry—the pacing for Divergence is almost top-notch. It notably slows down before the climax, which is obviously a problem, but otherwise, Seattle_Lite does a good job at slowing down the story enough to let readers breathe and digest what just happened. A good example of this is chapter three, which takes place after a quarrel between three of the main six ponies. Everything is quiet and nervous, since the world is still (mostly) cast into eternal night, but this tension serves to let readers recover from the action and paradigm shifts presented in the first few chapters.3
Divergence’s plot isn’t perfect, granted. In reading it, I found several plot elements and devices that don’t ever seem to go anywhere, or—in probably the most extreme cases—aren’t presented with the appropriate amount of weight.
The worst case of this occurs in chapter five, when Twilight Sparkle confronts a massively powerful entity known as “The Nightmare”.5 As explained by Seattle_Lite, this entity is supposed to be evil and cruel towards ponies and life in general.11 However, in the story proper, it only ever appears in a rushed scene where it tortures Twilight Sparkle before attempting to rape her—which mostly feels like a ham-handed and amateurish shortcut to show that “this entity is evil”. This entire scene is a noticeable patch of laziness in an otherwise well-crafted story. Worse, since the whole scene is incredibly short (barely over 400 words), it’s impossible to convey both the actions and the emotional impact—the latter of which should be the important part in a story. I’m of the opinion that, for rape, torture, gore, or any extreme plot devices, the best route is to either handle them well or not at all. Unfortunately, Divergence hits in the middle ground for me in this scene, which is certainly a weakness in the story.
However, it would be wrong for me to go without mentioning that Seattle_Lite doesn’t handle the aftermath of this scene appropriately. Afterwards, Twilight is (understandably) an emotional wreck who has to put her pain and suffering aside in order to press forward and do the right thing. Because of her (again, understandably) impaired judgment, she takes several actions that exacerbate the circumstances, and her conflict with Rainbow Dash moves into full swing. So even if I dislike how it’s glossed over and rushed, the “Twilight tortured and almost raped” scene still manages to drive the conflict forward and progress the story’s plot.
Regardless of some extemporaneous or ill-handled parts of this story, I will definitely say that the majority of Divergence contains a well-handled, well-paced, and conflict-driven plot.


I touched on this point earlier, but I like to consider the main conflict of Divergence as a war between two prophets. The story’s conflict is set in motion when Luna—a goddess—appears to Rainbow Dash, convinces her that changes are afoot, and gives her a mission to ensure her friend’s safety1. Twilight Sparkle, loyal to Celestia’s memory (as the sun goddess’ whereabouts are unknown), thinks that Luna is evil, and resists Dash’s efforts—first passively2, but then actively5. The two of them continue to butt heads—directly and indirectly—and from this inter-pony conflict, we get our two main characters.
On the note of “two”, the dualism in Divergence is abundant: both of the “prophets” team up with one of their friends—both who have, ironically, the same motivation of “family”—and the two pairs of friends work against each other to try and secure an end to the conflict.
I don’t believe I can think of a shorter way to mention that a story has deep, well-developed characters than the phrase “friends work against each other”. Now, granted, some of this effect is lost because Twilight is, canonically, a newcomer to the group, but Seattle_Lite makes a profound effort (and succeeds) at bridging that gap between “I just met you” and “I care about you”. Twilight’s fledgling chemistry with Rarity7 8 is definitely one of the strong points of characterization in this story; it feels natural that they grow closer due to all of the things they’ve endured together.
A better example of the strength behind “friends work against each other” is shown from the lunar side of this holy war: Rainbow Dash and Applejack. At one point, Twilight Sparkle offends some of Luna’s dragon friends, and these dragons want to regain their honor—in what will probably result in Twilight’s death. Rainbow Dash, even though she is (rightfully) pissed off at Twilight, has enough compassion to suggest, “Wait, let me go instead.”6
Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, admittedly, play a less-important role than the other four8, but that makes sense if you think about it: neither of them really has a taste for war or political convictions; they just want to make animals and ponies as happy as possible on a local level.
However, I think it’s worth noting that all of the main characters from the show are here, in-character, and—one way or another—friends. The strength of Divergence lies in how it demonstrates that even friends can have opposing goals, methods, and desires; in fact, a notable portion of this story’s inter-pony dialogue comes from disagreements that they have with one another—and it definitely demonstrates the lesson that “disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you dislike one another”.
Moving out of the spotlight to the background characters, the first supporting character I have to mention is Lyra. Her whole presence and weight in the story come across as shockingly weird, which almost embodies the uncanny valley feeling that fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic should feel when reading Divergence. Lyra is, ironically, the only character in this story who actually seems to know what’s going on—and that alone gives her an airy, ethereal sensation to her.6 7 9 10
My main critique of the characterization in Divergence is that some of the non-main characters (Lyra excluded) lack an individual voice. I noticed while reading the dialogue for a royal guard7, that he sounded similar to a wolf6 from an earlier chapter, who in turn sounded similar to a dragon4 from an earlier chapter. It’s not a terrible shortcut for an author to take (especially compared to rape), but once I noticed it, it definitely adversely affected my immersion in the story.
However, and despite the fact that some of the background characters are slightly bland, I can easily say that Divergence has a strong main cast of diverse, multi-faceted characters. Many of them wrestle with self-doubt (though not as predominantly as I would have preferred), which is natural given how they have many interests that are often at odds with one another.

Writing Technique

If there’s one point of Divergence where I have the most difficulty in classifying it as high-quality or not, it is in the writing itself. This isn’t to say that Divergence isn’t well-written, or that there were many typos (there were a few, but this story hasn’t ever been professionally edited, so I can forgive them). My main concern with Divergence is that there are a notable amount of quirks and imaginative uses of the English language that took me out of the story.
The first and most notable quirk of Seattle_Lite’s writing style is that he has a very robust vocabulary. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but an author must always be mindful of his or her potential audience. In Divergence’s case, there is an unsettling mix between streamlined, efficient language and flowery, grandiloquent words. I say “unsettling” because, in many cases, the astute wording in Divergence stands in stark contrast to the rest of the sentence, which gives the illusion of a high-schooler who writes “orange” into Microsoft Word, right-clicks on it, and selects “ocherous”4 from the list of synonyms in an effort to sound more refined—yet this mostly comes off as pretentious, and unapproachable.
Which, ironically, I know Seattle_Lite quite well, and I know he has a strong command of the English language. He’s not using a thesaurus to make himself look sharper than he actually is; he really does know these obscure words and their meanings. However, a strong vocabulary full of impressive words is like having a box of sturdy nails: they’re tools to help build something, but if the builder lacks the skill to place them effectively, the whole project will end up looking gaudy and rickety.
An even bigger offense that I noticed in Divergence is the use of comma-delimited phrases in tandem, used to expand upon an action or describe an object in the main sentence, often times getting stacked one-after-the-other, ineffectively avoiding the use of conjunctions, sort of like this sentence. Unlike the vocabulary issue, which comes across as a quirk, this convention’s overuse absolutely murders the flow of prose—and it is present within Divergence, present in droves, enough to jar me out of the story several times in a paragraph in some instances.
However, and despite the fact that I believe the writing is easily the weakest part of Divergence, I have the ability to look at the finished product on a macro level. And while it doesn’t excuse the problems I have with the style of this story, I must admit—the writing is effective. True, my critiques of the writing mention how they took me out of the story—but that stands to imply that I was immersed in the story in the first place.
And indeed, when Divergence got momentum, it is incredibly immersive. It is very rarely difficult to imagine the characters’ positions, actions, or surroundings. The imagery present in Divergence is both vivid and conducive to building an overall atmosphere—for example, the scenes with Lyra in a silent, mysterious grove6 7. When I read them, I felt how still and silent the location was—in remarkable contrast to the explosions, violence, and death that previous chapters contained.
“The writing is effective.” That is a good goal for any author to have. And if you think about it, having “effective writing” means that, minus some losses and interference, the idea that Seattle_Lite initially wrote about is now present in my head. Given that his idea was an ambitious, complex, and subversive one, the fact that Divergence has “effective writing”, combined with the memorable imagery, and despite the syntactical discrepancies I have, leads me to believe that Divergence is well-written. It isn’t perfect, but I don’t demand perfection from stories I read for pleasure—and I certainly enjoyed reading Divergence.


Although it could probably stand to have some parts polished and others sanded off, Seattle_Lite’s Divergence is a piece of literature that contains a strong, conflict-driven plot, several deep, multi-faceted characters, and a (mostly) effective writing style that is often immersive. According to the definitions I established in the introduction of this review, Divergence is an example of high-quality literature that happens to be fanfiction.


10. Interview with Seattle_Lite, transposed as follows:
Nicknack: Why did you write a story that is so purposefully at-odds with the show’s tone and atmosphere?
Seattle_Lite: I wanted to take the theme of the show, one that people were already familiar with, and turn it around, to make it more real and life-like. Basically, I wanted to write MLP for adults. The parts of FIM that already appeal to adults are largely based on nostalgia—the things we had growing up as kids. I wanted to contrast that by asserting that these joyful elements are things that we don’t necessarily have as adults, which led to combining the childlike innocence of the show with our relatively grim reality.
Nicknack: Even after looking at your story’s outline, I’m still a bit puzzled: What was Lyra’s role in all of this?

Seattle_Lite: Lyra was one of the characters I was able to use as a fulcrum of sorts, to really bring into focus the atmosphere I was painting, the world I was building. I’d never say she was merely filler—her character is one of the main drivers of the arch—but she was a manifestation of my story’s divergent tone—my attempt to reach out for and drawn down the ephemeral and mystical.
Nicknack: Clearly, the scene between Twilight Sparkle and The Nightmare was one of this story’s most controversial moments. Could you explain some more about The Nightmare from Chapter Five? What exactly is it supposed to "be"?
Seattle_Lite: In my headcannon, I take Luna / Celestia as legitimate goddesses, which leads to an extended pantheon. The Nightmare, then, is an extra-planar entity in line with that mythology. She has ultimate disdain for mortals, and treats their lives as utterly trivial. Her actions towards Twilight Sparkle are meant to hurt her as much as possible, and what happens to Twilight is basically what The Nightmare views as the most efficient way to break a mortal’s psyche.
Nicknack: Finally, and I guess this is an aggravating note to end on, but it’s been ten months since your last chapter. I can certainly relate, and I know you’ve got some stuff going on in your personal life, but can we ever expect to see Chapter 11 of Divergence?

Seattle_Lite: Yes. I have every intention of ending the story, and a lot of it is already written. I just haven’t had any quality time for writing as of late.


Thanks for the highly in-depth look at this fic, Nick! I think there's much to gain by examining fanfiction on its literary merits, and that showed through in this review.


  1. "However, it would be wrong for me to go without mentioning that Seattle_Lite doesn’t handle the aftermath of this scene appropriately."

    So if I'm reading this correctly, you're saying that you do not thing that aftermath was handled properly, but then the rest of the paragraph contradicts this statement.

    Also, another thing puzzles me. I don't ask this to be malicious or anything, but I gotta make sure I'm not just blowing steam.
    Could someone give me an example of a non-conflict-driven plot?

    1. Maybe he meant to say that the center of the conflict is between main characters, and that it drives the entire story forward.

    2. I mean that the scene itself was rushed and lacking what I would deem "necessary emotional depth" for a rape scene, but Seattle_Lite redeems himself by handling the aftermath of a rape scene in a competent manner. He avoids the completely amateur mistake of showing a rape (or rape-like scenario) for shock value, and then forgetting about the emotional toll that such an event takes on the victim.

      A non-conflict-driven plot would be one where scenes happen, they might be nice scenes, but there's no overarching, as-of-yet-unfulfilled character motivations and struggles that tie them together. I'd say that almost every good novel written in the past century is about the main character wanting X, not having X, and thus taking the necessary steps to achieve X. I'd argue this even fits with such vague applications of Holden Caulfield wanting happiness / meaning in his life, and failing to find it as he wanders through New York (though it's been a while since I read Catcher in the Rye, so pardons if I'm oversimplifying / missing the point).

      I understand that there are genres such as character studies, where an author just wants to create a world as a model-building exercise. Those can be enjoyable in their own right, but after a certain critical length (I'd say around 10k words), they start to drag on, and I begin wishing that something would happen.

      Another example would be a slice-of-life fic where nothing bad happens. In this fandom, for example, just imagine a first chapter to a story that's Rarity and Twilight having a nice conversation over a cup of tea. It might be enjoyable, but I'm of the conviction that without conflict, stories can't sustain themselves for any substantial length—at some point, even the most die-hard of fans is going to ask, "Why do I care that they're having tea?"

  2. Interesting review. I don't read normally read incomplete fics, though, so I'll wait until it's finished. I will, however, add Two Beats to my queue

    1. Heh... subliminal marketing scheme #46 was a success.

      In all seriousness, I hope you enjoy it.

  3. I've read this story several months ago. I agree with NickNack on many of the points he makes. I love that Seattle centers the story around the conflict between "firends". I also love the "two prophets" aspect and general feeling of uncertainty. But, I didn't like how watered down main characters felt. Maybe watered down is not the right phrase(pardon my English, still learning), but as I was reading the story, I felt more and more disdain toward the main duo. Twilight Sparkle often behaves frantically, and Rainbow is incredibly naive, and both of them seem to lack forethought. In general they were showing a lot of negative traits, which made them feel.. ordinary. It made me realize they are just two ordinary ponies that just happen to hold some amount of power. I understand author was specifically going for such characters, but I think he went a little too far. I found myself losing interest in the main characters very quickly, resulting in me not caring whether they live or die. To me, main characters should have something admirable/exceptional/interesting about them, certain level of cleverness, something to make reader want to know more about them, something that makes them stand out from the crowd, and that something is either lacking or is overshadowed by negative traits in this story.

    1. I kind of see what you're talking about with "watered down" characters, but I wouldn't use that terminology. Twilight Sparkle and Dash do seem to be normal ponies that get swept up into enormous circumstances that are beyond their control, but that's Seattle_Lite's take (his divergence from the show's characterization, if you will). And really, this "dumbing down" and "heroes just like us" philosophy says a lot about our own reality. Virtually everyone is the same on some basic biological level (excluding mental sickness and/or deformities, to a certain extent), yet a lot of success or failure can be attributed to being prepared (or unprepared) for the correct encounter at the correct time, a preparedness that can be largely attributed to one's circumstances in growing up and living what becomes a day-to-day life.

      So, even though it contradicts my own headcannon about what the six element-bearing ponies are, I like how down-to-earth Seattle_Lite's take on them is. And you're right—they make some terrible, terrible decisions in this story, but I'd argue that that's another point that Seattle_Lite is trying to make: misunderstandings lead to mistakes, mistakes lead to misunderstandings, and pretty soon, things get out of control.

      I will disagree with your assertion that Twilight Sparkle and Dash don't have something admirable or exceptional about them, however. Even though they are normal ponies who get swept up in enormous circumstances, they've both got exceptional (and opposite) loyalty and passion that keeps them going long after most ponies would have given up. And that's the important part of conflict-driven stories—the protagonists have many chances of giving up on their goals, but they stick with it long enough to see it through until the end...

      ...though I suppose the ending to this story isn't yet written. :/

  4. I consider this a challenge. Reading will commence shortly.

  5. Nick, you should start doing these on a regular basis. This is a good format and stands out from other reviewers for it. :D

    1. Heh... While I'm glad you enjoyed it, I don't really think there's that much demand for this sort of thing on a regular basis. I might do one or two others on my Fimfic blog, but that's hardly a regular basis.

  6. A very comprehensive review, but with how much detail it went into, I'm really surprised that examples from the actual text weren't used to illustrate points. Chris's reviews often did that. Particularly that comma issue. I'd have liked to see you expand more on that.

  7. You've convinced me to read the fic. There's just one thing though:

    "A better example of the strength behind “friends work against each other” is shown from the lunar side of this holy war: Rainbow Dash and Applejack. At one point, Twilight Sparkle offends some of Luna’s dragon friends, and these dragons want to regain their honor—in what will probably result in Twilight’s death. Rainbow Dash, even though she is (rightfully) pissed off at Twilight, has enough compassion to suggest, “Wait, let me go instead.”"

    What does that have to do with Applejack?

    1. That was supposed to point out that Rainbow Dash and Applejack are both working against their friend, Twilight... admittedly, Applejack wasn't all that important to the point I was trying to make. <.<

    2. You know what, now that I read it again, I get what you mean. At that point I was just thinking, "wait what did Applejack do" and looking for an example. Silly moment there.

  8. See, I am one of these types of readers that bases his bias for a story on it's entirety but bases his bias against a story on it's worst scene.

    That chapter five attempted rape scene simply telegraphed to me 2 problems with the story.
    1: The author seemed to be letting the story have it's way with the characters, which works in fiction in general, but in derivative fiction it works better to have those predefined characters take the proffered story and make their own way through.
    2: The author was too narrowly focused on cause and effect in his plot decisions. Because his opinion that a groin attack by a being like the Nightmare on a person like Twilight being the best thing she had to inflict suffering and break Twi's will is laughable. And while this may not be the case, it unfortunately strikes me as if the author resorted to this particular torture, attempted or not, for audience impact more than what would work best in the story. Whether this is accurate or not it left this impression due to how massively unimaginative it was.