Friday, March 14, 2014

Fandom Classics Part 41: The Age of Wings and Steel

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

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


  1. Ehhh, I'm kind of feeling like I should drop this one. If it was half the length, it would be another matter, but that's a lot to invest in for somewhat-well-executed cliches.

    1. Happily, this turned out not to be on my to-read. :B

  2. I think I can relate to the author of this one. Trying to take cliches and terrible ideas and make them work just to prove that they can be done right is what got me into writing in the first place. Both pony fiction and just writing in general, actually.

    One of my earliest works (which shall remain nameless) was an attempt to take the premise of a particularly awful fanfic that I read (which will also remain nameless) and use it to actually make an interesting world, plot and cast of characters. The final product looked nothing like what inspired it, but then, that was the point. My first foray into writing pony was led by the same ideal.

    In both cases, I have a hard time honestly saying that I think I suceeded, because my own ineptitude and general ignorance of what makes good writing shined through even brighter then than it does today, but I've never given up my belief that any idea can be salvaged.

    With the bollocking it was given early in the review, I was not expecting this to get as high a star rating as it received. Even if I've never read the thing though, I'm very happy to see it get an at least overall positive review, because I think it really reinforces that belief, and it gives me hope that more people might take that philosophy on board and try to actually put a new and interesting spin on a lot of the terrible ideas and cliches I keep seeing in this fandom.

    And as for the next review, that's definitely one I've read before. I'm not usually fond of fix-fics, but I think that that one in particular was something that was badly needed at the time. MMDW was so legendarily terrible that I couldn't even fully comprehend it, as if it left me in a state of shock at how bad it was. What’s Eating Rainbow Dash? was the fic that finally allowed me to articulate everything I hated about that episode, bringing me out of my catatonic state. It's been ages since I read it, so I can't speak for its overall quality or predict what rating it'll get, but damn it, WERB was one of the most important fics I ever read.

    1. Man, does anyone remember the Brony Fanfic X-Prize? That's all I can think of after reading this comment.

    2. Maybe, if it's the one I'm thinking of. Was it that contest where you write a Mary Sue fic and they anonymously submit it to EqD? I think the prize was a $50 gift certificate. I almost entered that. I was gonna plan out this whole arc following the Hero's Journey and everything, and actually try to make it six-star quality so Chris would review it. Then I realized how friggin' hard that'd be and laziness won over

    3. I agree with DannyJ!

      Well, except for the part about What's Eating Rainbow Dash? I haven't read that one.

    4. Oats, yeah. You had to write a story where:

      -The main character was a self-insert who goes to Equestria and gets turned into a pony.
      -One of the mane cast falls in love with you.
      -I think saving Equestria was part of it.
      -There was likely more.

      I had a great idea for it, but the Prize went away after no one tried it for two years. (I asked. :B) I've considered just turning it into your standard self-insert pony story, but I'm not sure it's worth it anymore.

    5. @Oats

      I actually did write something like that and send it in to EqD, though that wasn't part of a contest so much as it was a personal challenge. It's actually the same fic I was referring to earlier. My first pony story, which I made attempting to salvage an idea I saw elsewhere.

      Somehow (don't ask me how), it actually passed the pre-readers of the time and was posted, and it's now the fic I'm best known for, even though it's also easily my worst. I keep hoping to one day write a story that eclipses it, but I don't see it happening soon.

    6. Present, the idea of you writing a self-insert fic is funny enough to be worth it. If you need anymore reason, well, my birthday is coming up soon... :p

      Danny, isn't that the story of every artist? Even if you write a better fic that proves more popular, it won't be your favorite. Such is the Creatives' Curse

  3. Yes! Finally a story I have read coming up! Admittedly, I had to take another look at it, but I remembered it well. I'm definitely interested in seeing what you'll think of it.

  4. Ooooh snap!
    Chris be killin' this review thing. Straight up slaughtering this mess, ya know what I'm sayin'?
    He's a reviewing machine! An unstoppable force! You can't hold his mad skills! Get on his level!

    Aaight then.
    Wizord of the Dizay: Travelogue.