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I'm back, baby! Are you all ready for your gifts? Because I got you something while I was on vacation. Any idea what it is...?
That's right! It's a review! Specifically, it's a review of AestheticB's The Immortal Game. Go unwrap it below the break.
Impressions before reading: Confession time: much like last summer, when I forgot to write up my pre-reading impressions before going on vacation and reading Fallout: Equestria, I forgot to write up my pre-reading impressions for this story. So, I'm cheating a bit here and doing this section by memory.
When it was being written, I never gave this story a second glance, mostly based on the title. Originally, The Immortal Game was called Ponies Make War, which a) isn't a very good title, and b) doesn't sound like my kind of ponyfic to begin with; grimdark battles full of blood and guts aren't usually what I look for when I want to get a fanfic fix. But I've encountered a few such fanfics that I really enjoyed over the course of this blog, and I'm hoping this will be one of them. As long as there's some sort of explanation for how we got from the show's idyllic version of Equestria to the presumably much darker setting of the fic, I'm more than willing to give this a go.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Before Celestia and her rule, there were other alicorns--other gods. Gods more powerful and terrible than anything modern ponies have ever known. Now, they're back, and if they cannot be stopped then Equestria has no hope for the future.
Thoughts after reading: I'll start off by pointing out that the grimdark tag on this story is no joke. Extremely graphic violence is the rule of the day throughout, and the story has more than its share of psychological horrors, too. I can't recommend this story to anyone with a weak stomach, nor to anyone who is in principal averse to mixing ponies a hard R rating.
If you are willing to accept that in principal, however, this story does do a reasonably good job of justifying the violence which pervades it--at least, in the story proper. The differences between the blood-soaked distant past (and the timeframe over which the story takes place) and show!Equestria are explained clearly, and in a way which makes perfect sense within the context of the story. When some of the darkness starts to bleed over into what we might call "canon Equestria," however, it jars horribly. No matter how I slice it, I can't conclude that the entire backstory surrounding Rarity's father makes any sense, tonally (as an aside, this story was begun near the start of season 2. Expectations surrounding Twilicorn, Discord, Twilight's family, etc. should be adjusted appropriately). I admit that I could have done without the prologue, though--the context which the first chapters provide nicely set up the ensuing violence, and the cold battlefield open did initially have me worrying that this fic would revel in pointless, ill-justified violence.
But no, the violence here is almost always of the intentional, justified variety. Much as I observed with Fallout: Equestria, AestheticB does a good job, on the whole, of using the diminishing shock value of bloodshed to deliberate effect, mirroring the way the ponies themselves slowly become inured to combat. And when a bit of villainy or butchery is supposed to stand out, the author almost always finds a way to make to do so, often by introducing psychological horror into the mix. That said, there were numerous battle scenes I was tempted to skim, and some (mostly those involving Pinkie) which I found difficult to follow. The fighting may have been effectively used, but that doesn't mean it wasn't excessive or over-indulged in at multiple points.
The first few chapters aren't terribly well edited, nor well written. There is the occasional missing word or misspelling, and various characters spend a lot of time on "as you know" speeches; that is to say, the sort where everyone present would already know the relevant information, and it's obvious that said speech is solely for the benefit of the reader (one of the characters acknowledges this later in the fic--I can't say that I was much appeased, though). However, both technical and stylistic quality improve noticeably by about the 1/3-way mark, whether because of the author improving, finding editors, or both.
Characterizations were mostly good. For the most part, I was impressed; Twilight's mental tribulations and crises of faith were relatable and genuine, the way Rainbow Dash responded to early events in the story was at once dramatic and easy to sympathize with, and the alicorns' schemes and motivations were invariably interesting, and (with the exception of Titan, who remained a distressingly stock "omnipotent enslaver"-type, despite an attempt to flesh out his backstory) succeeded in giving them all welcome depth. Through all the gory trappings, it would be easy to lose track of the real story here--Twilight learning to view her friends, her mentor, and herself as they each truly are--but despite the many subplots, histories, and tangents in which the story indulges, sometimes for tens of thousands of words at a stretch, the author never loses track of the essential plotline.
On the other hand, Rarity's father is poorly conceived, and the execution of his character is lackluster. Most of his more villainous actions seem calculated by the author to make him seem cold-heartedly vicious yet intelligent--not a bad thing for a villain to be, of course, but here it's taken to such extremes that he becomes little more than a (nearly literally) baby-eating caricature. Likewise, one of the ponies' allies who appears towards the middle of the story (and who brings a few dozen meta-references with him, the most of which I found distracting (though fair's fair, I laughed a couple times as well)) is obviously intended to fill a Harrison Ford-type role (a.k.a. grumpy mentor/comic relief)... far too obviously, as it turns out. With both of these characters the metaphorical puppet strings stand out far too starkly, to the point where their presence is more often grating than effective in delivering the intended emotional responses.
There are more twists and turns to this story than I could easily relate here, even if I resorted to spoilers. Some of these smacked of deus ex machina, but in a story with half a dozen gods running around, such is to be expected. In any case, the greater part succeeded in feeling both reasonable within the context of the story and keeping the reader guessing. It wasn't until relatively late in the fic that I was able to confidently predict how things would end, yet the ending still felt like a natural outcome--the mark of a (series of) well-executed twist(s). There are a number of seeming plotholes--including (to name two of the most egregious to me) at least one unaccounted-for deity by the time "the end" roles around, and a stretch of maybe 80k words where Spike is missing and nopony seems to notice (or at least, to care enough to comment or to do anything about it)--most of which revolve around the more physical elements of the conflict(s) which make up this fic.
However, the overarching story isn't really about the then-eponymous ponies making war, nor even about the now-eponymous Immortal Game. Those are both crucial story elements, but what the story's really about is moving beyond all of that. It's about the enduring power of of friendship, love, and all those other wonderful things. And as far as that story is concerned, the execution is nigh-flawless. Each new revelation feels like a natural outgrowth of the story to date, and through all the misery which he throws at them, AestheticB manages to pervade the story with an indefatigable sense of hope. This is, in the end, a very optimistic, humanistic (equinistic?) story.
And that by itself elevates it above a great many of its genre peers. The Immortal Game is sometimes bleak, always violent, and occasionally extremely disturbing... yet it is, at its core, a My Little Pony fanfic. Rather than just using its setting for a bit of added shock value in an otherwise generic war fic, this story lives and breaths the values and setting which define the show. That's not the only way to write a good fanfic, it's true. But in terms of concept and concept execution, this work is refreshing in more ways than one.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
The Immortal Game has its share of plot holes, thin characters, and (in the early going, at least) mediocre writing. But it also has strong central plotting, deep characters, and (past the early going) quite competent writing, and rather more of the last three than the first. Add to that a well-executed, setting-appropriate overall story arc, an obvious awareness of how to use violence in a story, and some great puns, and you have a very good fanfic.
Recommendation: As I noted at the start, this is unavoidably, unabashedly grimdark. Still, if your objection to grimdark stories lies in their tendency to pervert characters or setting, this fic is exceptional in those regards, and might merit a look. For readers interested in a long story which meshes action and character-building, or for fans of "epic" stories in general, this is definitely one to read.
Next time: Next time? Next time we begin the Fandom Classics reviews, which will look suspiciously similar to these, except for the part where they won't be reviews of six-star stories. Because, you know, I'm out of those.
In any case, we'll begin with No Quixote Here, by RedSquirrel456