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Ha-HA! You didn't think this review would be ready so quickly, did you? Doubting old Chris' ability to read that much that quickly? Well, you best be respectin', because here I come, reading 200,000+ words like it ain't no thang. Click below the break to see my review of DSNesmith's The Age of Wings and Steel.
Impressions before reading: Along with the aforementioned length, the description tells me this is going to be very much on the "epic" end of the fanfic spectrum. Nothing wrong with that--far-flung tales encompassing a wide-ranging cast can be among the most rewarding of fiction for a reader. But they're also notoriously difficult to write well; it's no coincidence that "epic fantasy" is sometimes (erroneously, but still used) used as a pejorative, to denote endless volumes of juvenile-geared pablum. From my first impressions, this could be a breathtaking journey through ancient Equestria at war... or it could be an interminable slog through a bunch of hackneyed cliches. Obviously, I'm hoping for the former.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: More than 600 years after the Great War against the gryphans, and 300 after Nightmare Moon's banishment, Equestria is once more facing invasion. With few allies to turn to, Princess Celestia sends Rye Strudel--an unlikely nobody--to secure the aid of the Northponies, while politicians and warriors across the country gird for war.
Thoughts after reading: Well, cliche is certainly the rule of the day here. Our hero is a winged unicorn who can neither fly nor do magic effectively, who sets off on a travelogue/adventure with his spunky female best friend and an uptight military-type, while back on the war front the gryphon general dutifully ticks off every box on the "villain archetype" list, while facing a variety of noble but tragically flawed (in the traditional sense of the phrase) pony soldiers and commanders.
After reading the author's note, that's no surprise; to quote: "One of my favorite concepts is the reconstruction of a downright terrible idea into something presentable. I'm a strong believer that there are no bad ideas, just bad writing... [my goal was to] take a pot full of awful, overused cliches, combine them together, and make something good out of it." And this story certainly does pile on those overused cliches in spades.
Surprisingly often, this works. Our "alicorn-but-not-really-look-he's-got-no-powers" protagonist, for example, is practically a shot across the bow of every first-time writer who heard that if you give your character a flaw or two, he can't be a Mary-Sue. And yet, his character arc remains enjoyable to read about despite how predictably it hits all the "right" notes, even before the delightfully realistic end. Star Wars is the go-to example of effectively using Campbell's hero's journey in modern storytelling, but this fic does every bit as well in that regard.
However, a commitment to "awful, overused cliches" isn't always for the best here, as the fic's villains most effectively show. General Shrikefeather of the gryphons is essentially without any character at all, so dedicated is the author to making him cold, "calculating" (an word I'm forced to bequote because, like all classic villains, he shows little to no military competence, all assurances of the fic notwithstanding), and utterly alien by comparison to the more humanized ponies. Indeed, the gryphons as a group are remarkably poorly realized; one moment the story will be dourly recognizing that their multi-century lifespans mean that each member of their army is more battle-ready and hardened than the stoutest pony warriors, and the next it will dive into reflections on how the ponies' greater strength makes them more than a match for an equivalent gryphon force in close combat. These aren't different characters expressing differing opinions; they're both presented as fact, along with several other seemingly irreconcilable ideas about gryphon culture and warfare. Such is the danger of trying to make a species both the "overpowering supersoldiers" and the "faceless horde."
The end result is that this is a very predictable story, through and through; the kind of story where I can say that the three main clans of Northponies are the Elk clan, the Raven clan, and the Snake clan, and no amount of effort to the contrary on the author's part can disguise who the villains of that triumvirate are (I can't even bring myself to call it a spoiler), and where it's generally possible to predict events well in advance. But despite that, this is still an enjoyable story on its own merits. The writing is often cartoonish and unbelievable, which may not sound like a compliment, but is a very strong match with the over-the-top characters who populate the story. Dialogue likewise tends towards the overblown, and once one finds one's groove in the story, the exaggerated declarations are a good fit for the equally exaggerated style of the narrative.
Of course, that element of exaggeration does tend to mitigate the emotional impact of some of the story's more serious moments; I've always had trouble taking seriously the last words of a mortally wounded character ("tell my wife I loved her" followed by a head roll to the side, for example (though that's not a quote from this story, mind)), and there are more than a few of those in this story--and they are representative of the type of emotional construct on display, not outliers. Still, a lack of emotional investment doesn't mean that the world DSNesmith has created isn't interesting in its own right, and that's perhaps the greatest strength of this fic: its worldcrafting.
Now, the presentation of the worldcrafting isn't always the strongest; spunky female best friend delivers large chunks of it via monologues to characters who often ought to already know at least most of what she's telling them. But the history, lore, and politics which line this story are wonderfully realized, and the author shows a knack for knowing what needs to be explained, and what would be more effective if delivered via implication. Even if the story were awful (and thankfully, it isn't), this picture of Equestria would be an very strong one.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆ (what does this mean?)
I never got terribly invested in this story, but it was entertaining enough on its own terms. There's a reason cliches become cliches, after all: they work. And even when they aren't, perhaps, utilized as cleverly as the author might like, this is a story that holds together on its own merits.
Recommendation: Anyone who likes comprehensive worldbuilding and sprawling fantasy, and who doesn't mind more than a bit of cookie-cutter (but not poorly written) characterization and dialogue to get it, will want to give this a look.
Next time: What’s Eating Rainbow Dash?, by Somber