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We're trying something new today: spoilered star ratings! In order to prevent your roving eye from taking in the 1-5 number before you've properly steeled yourself, you'll now have to click the show/hide box to view it. If you have strong opinions about this being a positive or negative change, let me know. Otherwise, enjoy my review of JawJoe's Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift, safe in the knowledge that you needn't see those stars until you're good and ready for them.
Impressions before reading: Although it's as easy to muck up as anything else, I've always been fond of the "the masquerade" as a premise; the idea that there's a dark, usually undead-filled world to which only a few are privy, and which is (either voluntarily or forcibly) kept from the awareness of the average person, is one that provides plenty of potential for action, intrigue, mystery, and drama. So right off the bat, I'm interested to see how this take on Twilight having a secret life plays out.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: In the years since her parents' untimely death, Twilight has filled her sleepless nights with work for the Night Shift: a shadowy organization run by Princess Luna, dedicated to keeping demons, vampires, and the like from harassing Equestrians. But she finds that there are some disturbing connections among her jobs, which all seem to be part of something much, much larger...
(worth noting: this fic was begun before season 3; set your expectations for canon-following accordingly)
Thoughts after reading: There are a lot of dark fics in this fandom, and some of them are extremely good (there's a sentence that says something!). And one thing all good dark fics must address in some way is how to reconcile their tone with, well, My Little Pony. Finding a way to place dark events in Equestria is the primary challenges specific to the genre, in fact.
Night Shift does a reasonable job of explaining Twilight's grim cynicism, but where it falls short is in its portrayals of Equestria at large. JawJoe paints a very bleak picture of Equestria generally, and there is not a single major or minor character here who doesn't have a tortured past, deep-seated self-loathing, serious emotional baggage, a history of physical and/or emotional violence, or all of the above. Even the most "lighthearted" of characters, such as eternal drag-along (and vampire) Vinyl Scratch, are saddled with plenty of guilt, heavy-hanging deeds, and most of all, cynicism.
In fact, "cynical" is perhaps the best word to describe this story. Every single character in it shows a tremendous amount of world-weary, jaundiced pessimism towards... pretty much everything, really. For any individual character, this works; again, Twilight's given a perfectly good reason for acting the way she does. But when this extends to literally every character in a large cast, then the constant bleakness not only becomes wearying, but also draws an uncomfortably clear distinction between this story and the setting it's nominally making use of. Simply put, this doesn't feel like Equestria after a while.
That's a shame, because there are a lot of things here that worked individually. Trixie's role in the story adds a pleasant level of snark to an already-interesting arc (although she ultimately succumbs to the fic's need for everyone to have a tragic, grim history), for example, and in fact almost all of the individual arcs are well-paced and interesting. The notable exception is a, for lack of a better term, dream sequence which drags on through fully a fifth of the fic's verbiage; despite having lots of important character stuff, I felt pretty strongly that 1) the same could have been expressed in half the words without any loss due to compression, and 2) the sheer length of that sequence dramatically bogged down what was, otherwise, a story which made good use of alternating action and building tension.
Although the various arcs may have worked for me, I found the mystery of what connected them less enthralling. A lot of this was that I was bothered on more than one occasion by Twilight seemingly reaching conclusions based on the author's knowledge of where events were leading, rather than anything that was in the story or based on her past knowledge. I felt like I had to spend a fair bit of time playing catch-up to Twilight, not because I'd forgotten some key detail, but because the only way to guess what her motive was was to project ahead to what the next revelation or two would be (For example, trying to figure out why Twilight was shocked that Luna would go to such lengths to protect somepony's "terrible secret"... when said pony's terrible secret hadn't been revealed, or even directly suggested, to that point). However, the ultimate explanation was one I found interesting, suitably dramatic and grandiose, and generally satisfying. It's true that the ending is also awfully hollow, with the primary conflict more "put on the back burner" than permanently solved, but there is at least a hint that the characters can go back to being... well, to being the broken cynics they started the story as, anyway.
★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
Leaving aside the possibility that I was biased by the fact that, not three paragraphs in, this story is already taking pot shots at CYOAs, I just found this story wearying. The best dark fics, it seems to me, retain an essential optimism about them; whether they ultimately reward or brutally subvert that optimism depends on the story, but there's at least a ray of hope as you read. Night Shift isn't so much grim as it is, well, cynical, through and through. Every character, every situation, the entire setting is positively suffused with a shrugging assurance that optimism is a fools game, and that it will be (and is) eternally unrewarded. And when there's not a single bit of respite from all that cynicism, it makes it hard to enjoy the finished product.
Recommendation: Although there's surprisingly little humor in this story, considering how snarky Twilight initially comes off, this one might still be worth reading for those who like gallows humor and is looking for a well-plotted conspiracy/apocalypse. People put off by incomplete-feeling endings or tonal malaise will probably be happier with something else.
Next time: Post Nuptials, by Darth Link 22