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Sorry if this one ends up going up a little behind schedule; I got home late today, and figured I'd rather miss my regular update time by a few minutes than do a rush job. Hope it was worth the wait! My take on Mister Friendly's The Irony of Applejack, below.
Impressions before reading: More changeling fics! There can never, ever be enough! On a more serious note, "Applejack was a changeling all along" sounds like an interesting premise, though I hope this fic does dig into some sort of explanation for why this didn't ever come up prior to the events of the season two finale, which this appears to be set just after. The title strikes me as a good sign on that front, but the AU tag is always a little frightening in this context; some authors use it as an excuse to ignore inconvenient things like "how characters act" and "common sense." Hopefully that's not the case here!
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Applejack's always known she was different, but she's tried her best to just be Applejack. In the wake of the changeling's attack on Canterlot, she suddenly discovers more than she ever wanted to know about what she really is... and that legacy is coming back to haunt her with a vengeance.
Thoughts after reading: I'm pleased to report, Applejack's arc is actually quite nice in the abstract; it does a nice job of explaining, using, and creating growth from its premise (that she was a changeling all along). Moreover, Applejack is written extremely well as a character. I only highlighted a couple of lines in my reading that struck me as "not sounding like Applejack," which, in a 175k word story, is nothing; the only thing I disliked about her dialogue was Mister Friendly's insistence on constantly using "Ah" for "I" (though thankfully, apostrophes were kept to reasonable levels--although I suppose it's mostly an aesthetic choice, I still prefer when authors err on the side of under-writing a character's accent). In fact, characterization was one of the strengths of this story throughout. I was particularly impressed with Pinkie, who inevitably brought just the right level of goofy exuberance to every scene she was in without overshooting into random-for-the-sake-of-random garbage.
As so often seems to be the case with these long stories, the writing improved noticeably as it went along. Although the piece is reasonably well-edited throughout, word use is disappointing in the first few chapters, with a tendency toward repetition, odd said-isms, and over-flowery prose (no dialogue should ever be tagged with "...queried his vermilion counterpart" outside of parody). However, these issues are only endemic to the first few chapters, and appear more as isolated errors thereafter than as persistent issues. More than a hint of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome (the excessive of character descriptions in place of names or pronouns) persists throughout, but it didn't rise to such levels that it particularly bothered me. On the whole, I found the writing solid and clear throughout, rarely calling attention to itself once some early issues were settled.
Where I did take issue with the story was not with the writing or the canon characters, though: it was with the depressingly cliche elements which seemed to pop up with depressing regularity. The main villain of the piece, for example, plays the emotionless "everything is going according to plan" role without expansion or variation for almost the entire story--which would be dull enough by itself, but since the narration dips into various characters' emotions regularly, the reader even gets to see firsthand that yes, for nearly all of the story he's just as boring on the inside as he is on the outside. Similarly, a death scene late in the story which could easily have been a powerful moment piles on the most maudlin stock actions and phrases to the point that it's impossible to take seriously.
What also bothered me was that the story suffered from what I've taken to calling "Harry Dresden Syndrome:" it takes its characters and runs them through a grinder, leaving them battered, bruised, and barely clinging to consciousness... in chapter four. And then has them keep finding exactly enough of a second wind (for no good reason, often) to beat them down again, for the rest of the story. In this fic, Twilight Sparkle is all but magically spent, reduced to staggering, panting, I'm-going-to-pay-for-this-in-the-morning exhaustion. And she then goes on to spend the next twenty-four hours more or less constantly casting spells, running hither and yon, and basically acting no worse for the wear, other than to occasionally tell us that she's "at her absolute limit"--again. A certain amount of hyperbole is one thing, but when every character is constantly pushed up against the wall like that, reader fatigue (not to mention suspension of disbelief) can become an issue. And for me, I found the assertions of extremity rather less convincing after they'd been repeated a few dozen times.
With that said, the story was conceptually solid. Applejack's arc was well thought out, but more than that, Mister Friendly seemed to have a good sense of how to pace events. Dresden Syndrome notwithstanding, action and revelation were nicely broken up, and the amount of narrative time spent on key events was in nicely in tune with their importance and need for explication. It's also worth noting that, despite the dark tag, this story is actually very light on the heavy stuff (heh). For the most part, combat is kids show-style (lots of punching, chicanery, and knocking bad guys unconscious, and not much in the way of blood, non-comical pain, or permanent injuries), and the author draws heavily upon the essential optimism of the main six to flavor the fic, with the result being a pleasantly un-grim take on the subject.
My biggest issues were with the excessive use of cliche scenes and concepts, and with an over-reliance on going to the "last full measure" well. Those are both significant issues... but they're also, I think, ones that are apt to bother heavy readers more than those for whom books and fanfiction are a more occasional hobby. And that's not a bad thing for a story to be.
Recommendation: With that in mind, this might not be a bad choice for younger readers, or for those looking for a good mix of adventure and family-friendly action. It probably won't hold much appeal to anyone who's put off by regular fallbacks to safe, comfortable story staples, though.
Next time: What You Can Imagine, by Darf