Wednesday, August 13, 2014

6-Star Reviews Part 162: The Steadfast Sky

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

Words? Read.  Opinions?  Formed.  Review?  Written.  Check it out below the break: The Grey Potter's The Steadfast Sky.

Impressions before reading:  First off, let me confess that I'm now 0-for-3 on remembering to write these pre-reading bits up before going on vacation.  So once more, we're doing this section from memory, after the fact.  That said...

Hey, a long-form adventure about young Celestia, Luna, and Discord discovering the Elements of Harmony sounds like a "me" sort of thing, especially given the emphasis the description puts on the worldbuilding.  350,000 words is a long--according to fifteen seconds of googling, that's Moby Dick plus The Last of the Mohicans, give or take several thousand words.  I've read and enjoyed much longer fanfics, but that doesn't change the fact that writing that many words, and making them all interesting, is a significant challenge.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A young Celestia and Luna live together in a city surrounded by insurmountable walls on every side, and unceasing clouds above.  They've known no other existence all their lives, but soon after an unlikely friend enters their lives, they discover a larger world--one crying out for saviors.

Thoughts after reading:  I think the simplest way to explain the problem with this story is to compare the reading experience to Fallout: Equestria and The Immortal Game, the other two fics I've reviewed when on vacation.  Fo:E was almost twice as long as this story, and I finished it about ten days into my vacation.  Game was a bit shorter than The Steadfast Sky is, and I finished it just under a week in.  I didn't finish The Steadfast Sky, on the other hand, until this Sunday morning, as I was well on my way home, mostly because for long stretches I found that I couldn't go more than a couple chapters without taking a break to read something else--and that I found it awfully hard to put that "something else" down and come back to this story.

Interestingly, that wasn't a problem I had through the first few chapters; as I was hoping, the setting held a lot of interest at the start, and the author did a nice job of providing just enough details about the city, the draconequus (I prefer draconequii for the plural, but I'm not going to pretend I have any idea what's "right" for a made-up word like that), and the setting in general.  After the first few chapters, I had high hopes for the fic story-wise.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of setting-related problems as the fic progresses.  Without going too far into spoilers, the protagonists seem singularly incapable of figuring out very basic elements of how Equestria works, why it's under an evil dictatorship, and what they're supposed to be doing about it, despite the fact that all the major events they need to know about happened within the lifetime of a typical adult and none of them are particularly secret.  Part of this can be explained by their youth (The Grey Potter goes to great lengths to show their childishness in their narration and voices; while largely successful in this regard, the effect is often cloyingly, unrealistically cutesy, especially with Luna), but I found reading it a very frustrating experience through the first half; there were plenty of mysteries and vistas to explore, yes, but those vistas shouldn't have been so mysterious, and tended to overshadow some of the less obvious, but more important, questions which needed to be explored.

By around chapter fifty (yes, fifty), though, enough worldbuilding had finally fallen into place that those "more important questions" were able to worm their way to the fore, and from there to the end, my reading pace picked up dramatically.  Not coincidentally (coincidental to my enjoyment, that is), it was also at around this point that the interactions between Luna, Celestia, and Discord started to be seriously explored.  Where the fic prior to that did little with their interpersonal relationships other than to establish that the latter two didn't get along but that they were all friends anyway, the story eventually does get into how those three very different characters would interact, to the benefit of both reader engagement and the story itself.

However, a lot of that characterization seemingly happens "off-screen"--to cite an early example, several chapters after Celestia sees the sun for the first time, we get this exchange between Celestia and Discord:
"You keep going on and on about how you want to somehow bring the sun back to Equestria, or worship the sun as your god and master or something." 
"I've only mentioned that once or twice!" 
"Three times, and we haven't had much else to talk about so far."  He shrugged.  "I dunno, maybe we should work on that?  On getting the sun back?"
The fact that Celestia has never actually mentioned any such thing in the story--and that this kind of "oh, here's something else that's been happening between the narrating characters but which they didn't mention" stuff happens pretty regularly throughout the fic--makes both character and plot development feel, at times, more like authorial fiat than an organic process.

Writing is an issue throughout.  Most notable are the tense problems which persist throughout the fic; fragments, sentences, and even entire paragraphs are regularly rendered in present tense, while the rest of the fic, well, isn't.  Editing errors are also a frequent issue, from missing words to spellcheck errors to accidental repetition.  But even beyond that, the writing in the first half of the story is often simplistic and full of staccato stops and jolts.  As with the cutesiness, this is clearly the result of the author trying to capture children's voices with partial success; the structuring improves markedly as the characters age in-story.  While I respect the attempt, I think it ended up doing more harm than good in this case.  On the plus side, the author does several things utilizing the unreliable narrator effect, mostly later in the story, which not only added some depth to the characters but also proved quite (technically) effective.

Now, a few odds and ends that don't fit nicely into paragraphs: first, it really bugged me that characters have a tendency to have yelling-filled conversations or get up to other shenanigans while hiding, moments after fleeing, or as they're trying to sneak up on someone, and nobody notices.  This story really gives Jackson's LotR movies a run for their money on that front.  Second, although the fic is mostly a family friendly adventure story, there are some questionable inclusions (questionable in the context of the larger tone, anyway) involving puberty and/or udders... the latter especially came so far out of left field that I almost couldn't believe that it was part of the same story.  Third, there's a Christmas chapter.  If you get bugged by extraneous meta-chapters of dubious-at-best fic-canon, skip it; otherwise, enjoy.  Third, a few bit characters have terribly overwritten accents; thankfully, they're mostly one-shot appearances.

Okay, now on to the end of the story: while the last half is an enjoyable blend of worldbuilding, character development, and straight-up adventure, the ending is a bit abrupt.  Not necessarily in the sense that it happens to rapidly, but in that it skims over several important sub-plots (for example, there's never any good explanation for where all the cloud-material came from/how the Shadow Stallion produced so much in so little time).  I was able to somewhat overlook these, as most of them involve information that the main characters aren't privy to, but that just brings us back to the problems in the first half of the fic: it doesn't give us enough information to enjoy the story properly.  At some point, that stops being a point of character-realism and becomes a reader issue which needs to be addressed, and the ending tips a little too far to the latter for me.  On the plus side, the ending does meaningfully resolve the primary conflicts of the three protagonists while still laying the seeds for the falling-apart which we know must have happened (that's the thing about prequels--the audience already knows where all the characters will inevitably end up), and I appreciated that it didn't try to force a more perfect resolution than the one presented.  In all, I thought the ending was a very good fit for the story, for better and for worse.

Star rating:

Rating super-long stories like this is hard; the quality tends to vary so much over the length of the work.  Chapters 10-40 were a slog, plain and simple, and I'd give them one-star--if they were the entirety of the fic.  They aren't, though, and between a setup that did enough to hook me and a second half that, if it didn't totally exorcise the bugaboos which haunted the earlier going, had some genuinely wonderful moments, I'd say this is as close to a summary of my opinion as a single number is going to get me.

Recommendation:  Fans of origin stories who don't mind a very slow parceling of information should give this a look, and readers who particularly enjoy origin stories will find some great ones here--not just Celestia, Luna, and Discord, but the Elements and some other big things as well.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who's easily put off by technical problems or pacing issues, though.

Next time:  Since I'm out of 6-star fics (again!), we'll be going back to the Fandom Classics posts, with...

The Longest Night, by Tundara


  1. Well, my read later list just shrunk down...

    ~Super Trampoline

  2. "350,000 words is a long..."

    A long what? Don't keep us waiting in suspense! Also, "... in the sense that it happens [too] rapidly..."

    I typically skip two-star fics, and this one's no exception. It's just as well, my queue's grown somewhat this past week. I still have yet to read The Immortal Game, and I've got a few others I'd like to get through before that. Plus, I'm taking a break from long fics after Always Say No

  3. Yay! I just gave up on The Longest Night yesterday. I'm not actually saying I thought it was bad, but it is definitely in the Things That Make Scott Look Like He's Sucking Lemons category.

    Should be interesting.

  4. By the sounds of it, I don't think I'm going to like this fic either. Off my list it goes. That's another first for me.

  5. Another fanfic behemoth in the bag. Great work, Chris!

    Word of the day: Fiat.

  6. I wish that with stories like this you should try to address the question: Why is this story so popular?

    1. I try to to do this with my single-story reviews. The answer is usually impossible to figure out beyond "right idea at the right time".