Friday, July 18, 2014

Fandom Classics Part 63: The Song of Syhlex

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

The Alps are up starting today!  Even if you aren't a regular Tour de France viewer, you might want to check it out for the next few days; mountain stages are always the most fun, and because of a few key injuries, this is the most wide-open the race has been in years.  Cycling, woo!

Okay, okay, back to things you all care about (Mystic, I miss you and your cycling-caring-about): my review of The Descendant's The Song of Syhlex, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  Well, I'm usually a big fan of TD's stories, and I do like well-written poetry, so I'm pretty optimistic going in.  In fact, this is one I've been meaning to read for a while now, and have had recommended to me before; I've just never gotten around to it until this review.  Hopefully it lives up to my high mental billing.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Spike and Twilight read an ancient poem which paints Celestia in a much less peaceful, placid light than they've ever seen her before.

Thoughts after reading:  As I often do with stories I really enjoyed, I'm going to start with the bad/less good, so that I can get on to the good stuff.  I had one real issue with this story: Spike's reaction to the poem seems a little perfunctory.  Spike and Twilight exist in this story mostly as trapping for the titular poem, but Spike's reaction to seeing an apparently heretofore unimagined-by-him side of Celestia is a little underwhelming, especially given the race relations in play.

That's about it for issues, though.  Twilight and Spike make otherwise excellent window dressing, and the brief introduction via them does a lovely job encapsulating both the restlessness of deep winter (a feeling I know all too well), and that feeling of importance that overcomes you when you read an old book by the firelight.  One thing I don't like about fanfiction on an e-reader: there's no way to read it in an ancient hard-bound tome, to smell old paper and hear the pages crinkle.  Anyway, I'm digressing; the point is, Syhlex evokes that feeling.

The meat here, though, is the in-story poem, and that was fantastic.  The poetic form is basic--it's just seven-line stanzas without defined interior stucture--but does what so little free verse-ish poetry (at least, in fanfiction) does: it uses its structure, and line breaks, in a natural manner which nevertheless wouldn't translate directly to prose.  Moreover, the vernacular used is consistently antiquated but not archaic, and this consistency gives the story a feeling of age and temporal placement without being distracting.  Incidentally, it also does a nice job of ameliorating and/or justifying The Descendant's propensity for dense prose; this is a style that plays to his strengths as an writer, it seems to me.

In terms of plot, the poem is a short epic, and deals with creatures and events in mythological terms.  The storytelling touchstones present (e.g. seven sons, each of whom have a defined trait) help establish the style, and also mark this as a very traditionally structured tale.  Everything about this screams "from another time (in a well-established fictional universe)," and the fact that it's able to sell itself thus so well is important, because it's ultimately a story about Celestia.  This poem wouldn't resonate as well if it was about a generic goddess, or without the conceit that the (in-story) readers of the poem know her, and have seen her, in such a different light.  That meta-conflict may, as I suggested in the first paragraph, be underdeveloped, but it still casts a dual light on the story as both a legend and as a bit of character expansion, and that double-duty makes for a thoughtful, rewarding bit of reading.

Star rating:

I don't know why it took me so long to read this, but now I wish I'd gotten to it earlier.  "Epic mythology" and "well-written poetry" are weak points of mine, and this one hits them both, all while being an excellent story in its own right.

Recommendation:  This is a must-read for fans of poetry and mythology.  Even people who normally find poetry affectatious and/or dull should give this a try, though.  It's short and accessible enough that the style isn't a deal-breaker, and it uses its form to good effect.

Next time:  Synchronicity, by A Hoof-ful of Dust


  1. Oh, it's poetry? I (unfortunately) don't have the best track record with that, but it's by TD and got five stars, so I'll give it a shot. Hopefully I can appreciate it

  2. The Alps are up starting today!
    My immediate reaction being "But the Alps have always been there. :/"

    Ahh, I'm very pleased by this. :) It's one of the few fandom poems that really works. (I think all the rest are by AugieDog.)

    1. Oh, they take the alps down once a year for a few months to clean them up for the tourists.

  3. I am genuinely surprised that you never read it before this. I always thought Syhlex was one of TD's better-known works that everyone had read, like Variables.

    I'll say of Syhlex that while I generally agree with most of this review, I really didn't get the "poem" side of the poem. My memory is fuzzy, but I recall reading it as regular prose instead of poetry, because I just completely failed to find the rhyme scheme or cadence or meter of whatever it is you're meant to call it. I couldn't figure out how it was meant to be read, is what I'm trying to say. I am absolutely god-awful at poetry, both writing and reading it, so even though I still enjoyed Syhlex, I think a lot of its appeal was lost on me. What can I say? I am an ignorant plebian.

    1. That's my problem with so much poetry. I struggle to figure out how a piece is supposed to flow. There are a few exceptions, like The Raven. Enjambment, especially, fucks with my head

    2. Personally, the bane of my existence is how rhyming is rendered in written dialogue, because then there's no formatting to at least hint at how you're meant to follow it. In some cases, especially when you have authors who put in mid-sentence or, God forbid, mid-word rhymes, it becomes almost impossible to untangle. This happens a lot in works that heavily feature Zecora.