Also, pictures! Who doesn't love some coverart to break up a long post? Anyway, yeah, go check it out below the break.
Although at this point best known for Fallout: Equestria—Project Horizons, Somber has recently experienced an uptick in visibility due to his move to Fimfiction and the republishing of his other six star story, “Simply Rarity,” there. Just a couple of months ago, another of his older stories, the somewhat more controversial “What’s Eating Rainbow Dash?” was reviewed here as a fandom classic. In the summer of 2011, though, he wrote a number of other stories that have not generally been remembered to the same extent as these, and he has just started another, Broken Accords, his first story native to FimFiction.
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“Second Impressions” was Somber’s first attempt at pony fanfiction, and was, like the bulk of his early stories, short, weighing in at just over 5000 words. It covered Fluttershy’s return to the gardens of Canterlot Castle following the disastrous Grand Galloping Gala, and her attempt to befriend the animals there once again. It suffers somewhat from being largely a retread of Fluttershy’s plot line from the episode, but with what feels like less time given to let her emotions escalate, given that the focus is purely on her. Some of the comedy included is cartoon slapstick, which doesn’t sit well right next to, for instance, a reference to the jealous greed of Gollum, quite possibly combined with Of Mice and Men with Fluttershy in the part of Lenny.
Additionally, the writing is inconsistent, switching between heavy telling,
Fluttershy’s lips moved soundlessly in agreement, but in reality something unpleasant reared up inside her. Fear, but something else. Something worse. Her friends’ time at the Grand Galloping Gala had been a fiasco, but for Fluttershy it was something more. She thought of the animals, and instead of a warm glow spreading through her heart she felt something sour inside that made her frown. It hurt, and she didn’t like the feeling one bit.
to more concrete, but was generally kept a little remote from the scenes, compressing time and actions except when dialogue slowed it down and brought focus.
For all this, it comes around to a moral that nicely resolves the story and Fluttershy’s segment of “Best Night Ever,” delivered by Celestia’s groundskeeper: that it’s easy to become accustomed to what you have accomplished, but if you try to start fresh, you won’t be able to replicate it immediately. A friendship report is averted with joke from Celestia, telling Twilight to “count this one as a freebie.”
His followup was “Simply Rarity,” a story which differed vastly from “Second Impressions,” Chris’s review of which is here. Like the latter, “Simply Rarity” uses Twilight as a bookend to the story, essentially to frame the core, but rather than being another continuous narrative, this explores Rarity’s past through her childhood diary entries. The tone is far darker, driven by what appears for a long time to be an unrelenting series of misfortunes that ought to break most adults, to say nothing of a young girl. Moreover, the Rarity who wrote the diary is, unlike the Fluttershy of “Second Impressions,” undoubtedly distinct from that of FiM, even excluding the seasons released after its publication, due to details such as apparently not especially wanting to live the glamor and style of Canterlot, at least not anymore.
In many ways the diary format suited Somber’s style of the time, accommodating and justifying a high degree of compression and abstraction, while allowing some few chosen details to expand as Rarity gave more focus to them. However, within the entries were some choices that were distracting. For Chris, the frequency of the strikethroughs stood out. For me, there were instances of details being included that appeared more oriented towards giving hints to the reader, rather than ones that would naturally be included in a journal. For example, specifying the color of one of the ponies who sheltered her at one point, when such details were mostly absent elsewhere, was done to indirectly inform the reader that the family was Applejack’s.
Outside the diary itself, the characters are little used, essentially window dressing, but largely feel like the ponies from the show. Rainbow Dash thinks mainly about what’s on the surface, fails a test of self-reflection, and lacks a filter between her brain and her mouth; Applejack needles Rarity but backs off once she sees she’s taking it personally; and Twilight wants to investigate her friend’s problem, and finishes her part in the story by writing a diary entry of her own which played a role similar to a friendship report. Somber makes his first use of original characters in Rarity’s parents and sister Unique, childhood friends, and mentor, who though individually not fully developed due to the format are still distinct and fit their roles well. Character voicing, however, is sometimes a weak point, though, as is the case here, where Rarity fumbles her ending generally and in particular lowers rather than elevates her speech while defending herself: “‘It’s a journal,’ Rarity said brightly, flushing as she looked at her friend’s incredulous looks. ‘You can write your thoughts down and…. Stuff.’”
The substance of “Simply Rarity” was an exploration of Rarity and her Element, one which painted a picture of what the extremes of generosity can be, and what might inspire them. The liberties taken, small as they are in scope, leave it as a portrait of a Rarity who might have been, depending on your tastes, who you might want her to be—not the trauma, of course, but a purer reflection of unselfish giving than the more conflicting one that we’ve come to see over the years, who ranges from undermining her own chances in competition to do a favor for an old acquaintance to making her younger sister haul hundreds of pounds of her luggage on a camping trip.
Like “Simply Rarity,” “Thicker Than Water” heavily concerns itself with family, in this case, Rainbow Dash’s. It’s built around her parents and numerous siblings arriving in Ponyville after hearing about her victory in the Best Young Flyers Competition, unfortunately the day before Dash was competing in a Wonderbolts tryout.
Structurally, this could easily be an episode of Friendship is Magic: you could insert the theme song right after Rainbow discovers her family is due to arrive, a commercial break after her parents finally catch up with her, and a second after Fluttershy shares some of her own family history with Rainbow Dash, and the tryouts filling out the last segment of the episode, apart from another almost-friendship report, this time in the form of Twilight writing a letter to her parents.
Once again, the actual plot in the story’s present is minimal, with most of it—following the cartoonish comedy segment in which Rainbow tried to escape her parents—consisting of Twilight trying to find out why Rainbow reacted so negatively to her family, and the answers easily given in dialogue with Diamond Flash, Rainbow’s twin sister, and Rainbow herself. There’s a nice character scene between Rarity and Fluttershy, detailing why Fluttershy had earlier helped Rainbow’s parents find her, and then the tryouts happen. Yes, this scene allows Dash to overcome the obstacles she placed before herself, and attain a degree of reconciliation with Diamond Flash, but the story seemed to be less interested in them than the exploration of why Dash felt smothered by and resentment towards her family in the first place.
In terms of tone, “Thicker” was far lighter than “Simply Rarity,” more on the level of the sweet niceness of “Second Chances,” but just as “Second Chances” included one moment far more intensely dark than the rest, so too did “Thicker” in Fluttershy sharing a series of photographs of her and parents, then just her father—seemingly extraneously revealed to be the head pegasus/mayor of Cloudsdale—in which she over time she became frightened and alone, and was unable to share what happened to her mother. It also returned to more slapstick, and used fandom references fairly heavily, including two separate instances of “ten seconds flat.”
Where characters are concerned, this story introduces many OCs, Rainbow’s entire family, but only uses Diamond Flash as much more than a prop, and even she is defined largely in her contrasts to Rainbow. Fluttershy, however, is given more development in a couple brief scenes than she got in “Second Impressions,” and one of Pinkie Pie’s more obnoxious sides is rendered well when she “helps” Fluttershy throw a welcoming party for Dash’s family after promising not to throw one herself. Rainbow’s presentation is complicated, in that her competitive and attention-seeking nature, her overriding need to be an individual, conflicts with any sense that she would stand by her family. There’s some love there, and even a small amount of conformity, as when she lines up with her siblings and does her introduction with the rest—in the end even reluctantly saying her given name of “Beryl Dash”—but unlike the Rarity of “Simply Rarity,” she isn’t a distillation of her Element. It will probably be a matter of personal taste if this is taken too far.
Somber maintained his past-orientation with “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” which like “Simply Rarity” has events in the present largely as a frame for the real story, which is in the past, but this time relayed through flashbacks interspersed with short scenes of Applejack and her family getting ready for and heading to an event. Rather than answering how Rarity got to be the pony she was, this story explains Applejack and Sweet Apple Acres, and how they came to be, starting from her father, Appleseed, getting a loan to fund expansion from a single acre and continuing through the hardships along the way. Some of the tension is diffused, however, by the fact that the reader knows where they end up. Despite that, there is some pathos to be had related to Appleseed and his dreams of a better tomorrow for his family, and what the Apples had to do to get through the losses and financial hardships they faced along the way to the present.
One of the more impressive things Somber does with the story is to make a Big Macintosh who feels consistent with who we saw in season one, is very distinct from Applejack and with entirely different motivations, all with only a few lines. In contrast, I believe he tried to get some unearned emotion out of Appleseed’s and Applejack’s expression of why they had their vision for and fought so hard to keep the Acres, respectively, for his family and to have something she put her heart into creating, whatever its scale, which to me seemed somewhat divorced from the statements they’d made and actions they’d taken earlier. And that’s something that could have been remedied by simply adjusting some of the dialogue, as with
“Whatcha lookin at?”
“All the apple trees,” he said as he smiled at the yellow grass swaying lazily in the afternoon breeze.
“But the apple trees are behind us, Daddy.”
He looked down at her and knelt, scooping her on to his shoulders once more to look at the hills around their farm. “Those were just the start, Tulip. I was thinking we’d have some more over there. Then maybe some over there. Up there too. Rows and rows of apples as far as the eye can see.”
The simple addition of something directly referencing his children would have done wonders to shore up the later point, rather than leaving it entirely implicit until then.
Additionally, the antagonists here were weak, essentially functioning as more of an impersonal constraint by squeezing the family on their mortgage in an attempt to foreclose on the Acres rather than anything rounded out. True, there are some little bits that are different, as where they are convinced or shamed into agreeing to the loan in the first place by Applejack’s defense of her father, reminiscent of a young George Bailey telling Mr. Potter his father was bigger than him, or one being impressed rather than just frustrated that they made a payment, but these don’t carry too far.
Notably, it’s in this story that Somber begins to show ties between his stories, with “The worst had been when that white flanked unicorn filly from the tailor had stopped by and dared say that she’d been lucky- Lucky! Because she got to say goodbye” suggesting that this and “Simply Rarity” share continuity.
“Rarity’s Rodeo” marks the second time that Somber wrote a story focused primarily on events in the present, rather than using them as a backdrop for essentially explaining who ponies are via their personal histories. In this case, it’s following up on a pair of dares made during Applejack and Rarity’s sleepover with Twilight, leading to Rarity entering the rodeo coming to Ponyville rather than Applejack. It also marks his first attempt at shipping.
The story is clearly pushing Somber’s boundaries at the time, and in some ways he rose to the challenge, while in many he failed. Starting with the negative, there is the implausibility of how well Rarity does in the rodeo: she is always depicted as in the running, despite having only a week to prepare and starting from a very weak base. While this was partly due to using her own skills to outperform in events such as herding cattle, where she used the Babe solution of asking nicely with her own twist of flattery, or thinking of bull riding as dance—aided by the fact that this is likely in continuity with “Simply Rarity,” as indicated by referencing the loss of “something unique” due to a mistake in her past—but she did fine in simpler running events too. Likewise, there were some internal contradictions, such as Applejack feeling the rodeo to be very important, yet going along with the dare and letting Rarity compete in her place because she’d already won the last one, or grazing poles being sufficient to knock them over, and then Rarity grazing them and every one remaining upright. There is at times also a lack of focus, as when paragraphs are devoted to detailing what each of Twilight, Rainbow, Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Spike are doing at the fair surrounding the rodeo before the main competition starts.
Perhaps the greatest weakness, though, is in the Apple/Dash ship it sets up. While, especially from Applejack’s side, there is some setup, for the most part the attraction doesn’t seem to grow out of their interactions, with the worst case being a nuzzle, which followed a training montage that included no indication of changing affections of this sort for either Rarity or Applejack, leaving Big Mac, Apple Bloom, and Granny Smith stunned by the revelation Applejack was developing romantic feelings for Rarity. Most of Rarity’s reactions outside of the scene immediately following when Applejack kissed her—which came out of nowhere—seemed more indicative of friendshipping than romance.
On the positive side, Somber makes strides towards fuller antagonists with Diamonback. Although abrasive and possibly a cheat, she has a well-developed belief of what the rodeo represents, and resents that the way of life it was supposed to exemplify has faded. It’s far from enough to excuse her, or at least her posse’s, actions, but it’s a significant improvement over the bankers of “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” motivated purely by money and happy to squeeze as hard as possible to get the most they could out of the Apples.
Additionally, the story’s narration, when focused on the action-oriented rodeo events, has strengthened somewhat from the earliest stories, but problems remain, such as the overuse of exclamation points and the use of “buck” to mean “stallion,” borrowed from Fallout: Equestria. Similarly there have been improvements in dialog, but these are set against some still-poor speech choices like “You hear me, Rarity Pony?”
The Elements of Discord, published on Equestria Daily as Perils of the Past starting July 22, 2011, was not his first attempt at long form fiction, but given that it was abandoned before the season two premiere, is a better representation, as a discrete unit, of his capabilities in the field at the time. Elements is the story of the return of the titular Elements of Discord counterparts to the original Elements of Harmony and allies to Nightmare Moon, who was one of them as Celestia was one of the Elements of Harmony, and appears to be connected to his previously published short stories.
The story is told with a shifting third person perspective which will focus on many characters over time, including principally Twilight and Applejack out of the Mane Six, Nightmare Fury out of the Nightmares, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and Luna. Along with the early months of Project Horizons, this is the first time Somber makes extensive use of original characters, and as it is a pre–“Nightmare Night” fanfic, its Luna is built on an extremely limited base. The OCs have distinct personalities, but some tend to parallel canon characters in various respects; Nightmare Screamer, for instance, shares Rainbow Dash’s recklessness and pride, feeling resentment towards anyone better than her at something, particularly where flight is concerned, but is untrustworthy and violent.
Elements’s Luna only directly enters the story relatively late, considering her centrality to the narrative. In the time she does appear, she is presented as a capable leader and willing to both embrace her sister and leave the past behind—Sad Luna she is not. That is not to say that she is without regrets, for both sisters have plenty, nor does Luna want a complete break, as she desires the rehabilitation of the remaining Nightmares, who were her friends before their collective fall to darkness.
Unsurprisingly, among the features of Elements is a focus on Luna’s past, including the circumstances that led to her becoming Nightmare Moon and the resulting conflict, and related partially-explored creation mythology concerning the nature of Harmony and Chaos. This is related through a mix of expositional dialogue, direct flashbacks of characters’ memories, and illusions generated by Luna to aid Twilight in particular in understanding the Nightmares. When done through dialogue, this can be fairly dry, but the other types are more frequently used and tend to be engaging while portraying a historical Equestria that was shaping up to be an intriguing and unique backdrop to the Celestia/Nightmare Moon conflict.
Both in the present and in the past, the tone is darker than any of Somber’s short stories with the possible exception of “Simply Rarity,” with some relatively non-graphic violence and various flavors of evil on the menu. Interestingly, in the present there are no fatalities through the point where the story was abandoned, things playing out in the vein of something out of a children’s action cartoon in that respect despite the viciousness and power of the Nightmares involved; it is unclear if the story would have continued in this way. In the flashback scenes, however, violent death is present, as is (mentioned but not seen) the crippling of children by hit-and-run accident, execution, and other extreme punishment. In addition to Rarity’s childhood, inherited from “Simply Rarity,” it appears that Fluttershy was emotionally abused by her father, with some details about her upbringing filling out the start made with the photographs scene in “Thicker Than Water.”
Where the story significantly stumbles, and where Somber demonstrates considerable improvement over the course of its ten chapters, is in its plot. Chapters two through five rely heavily on most of the characters involved never communicating with the people they should and otherwise making terrible decisions. Examples include the Apple family deciding to make a defense of Sweet Apple Acres—a defense modeled on that of Appleoosa from the buffalo at that—against Nightmare Fury, whom they were informed singlehandedly destroyed Old Canterlot and was defeated and imprisoned only through the efforts of a thousand pegasus and over a hundred unicorn warriors, plus Princess Celestia; Twilight disobeying direct orders from Celestia to evacuate Ponyville and never speaking to Fluttershy to determine why Fury didn’t destroy her cottage, despite having the opportunity and previously making very clear that she hoped she would have the chance; and Celestia being largely incommunicado through the crisis and unhelpfully cryptic in the few letters she did send to Twilight. Compounding this, from time to time, internal inconsistencies show up similar to those in “Rarity’s Rodeo,” such as:
“Where is the Apple family? They’re the last ones to be evacuated.” The mayor looked over Twilight’s shoulder as if expecting the see the fifty or so ponies trotting after her.
. . .
“What about the rest of Ponyville? Are they going to help?” Twilight Sparkle asked as she looked around. There weren’t many folks in sight, but the town hadn’t been completely evacuated yet.
After the arrival of Princess Luna and her support staff at the end of the fifth chapter, this largely disappears. On the Harmony side, time is instead spent on the recovery from the first half of the story, explaining the Nightmares and determining how best to cleanse them as had been done with Nightmare Moon, and beginning an attempt for one of the Nightmares. For the Nightmares’ part, they continue with their main plan, which was beginning to take more concrete form by the time the story stopped.
Somber’s scene setting and action depiction has shown signs of improvement, helped also by having more to work with than mostly single-person athletic events. Scenery is vivid and well described, while fights are largely dynamic and easy to follow. This is even the case for the defense of Sweet Apple Acres, which is nevertheless undermined by a lack of tension resulting from the vast disparity in martial capacity of the two sides, leaving it clear that Nightmare Fury simply isn’t interested in causing the Apples any particular harm.
November 2011 brought with it “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” an episode loathed by many, including Somber. His response, “What’s Eating Rainbow Dash?” was published a week later. As Chris described in his review, there just isn’t much story here. While the conversations—each basically a plank in Somber’s overall argument that ruining a friend’s reputation and belittling her accomplishments by demonstrating they things she can’t do in order to teach her to act more humbly is a reprehensible way to act—reflect positions consistent with each character’s personality and delivered with generally good voicing, that’s about all they are. In this respect, it shares much with the middle portion of “Thicker Than Water,” which is likewise heavily dialogue-oriented and intended to explain her current emotional state. In the case of “What’s Eating Rainbow Dash,” the answers come from her friends, and in the form of discussing character traits she possesses, the nature of popularity, and Twilight and the rest’s actions, rather than her family life as a child before going to flight school alone.
As someone who sympathizes with the argument, and Rainbow Dash, I found the story emotionally satisfying, and as someone who enjoys backstory and expanded settings I appreciated the alternate take on Rainbow’s life following her first Sonic Rainboom, but I don’t think I can say that it’s much in terms of a story, especially in contrast to his other stories which operated in a similar overall structure: “Simply Rarity” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears” had at their hearts complete narratives, even if they took place in the past and were only seen through a journal or flashbacks, and “Thicker Than Water” had the advantage of introducing the disturbance to Dash’s emotional state, explaining it, and (partially) resolving it with a more concrete action than a “Sorry” party and friendship report, all within itself.
With 2011 out of the way, I arrive at Project Horizons: a 68-chapter, 1,400,000 + word behemoth of a recursive fanfiction whose author, in comments to Chris’s piece on Fallout: Equestria, predicted, regarding Chris’s future opinion of his own work: “It'll probably get one star and sum up as 'Long, whiny, horribly written, sueish characters, pretentious, illegible, and did I mention LONG?' but at least it will be done with professional skill and finesse.” (sic)
I once summed up the fic as the story of Blackjack, a young woman who runs away from home and gradually becomes the woman her mother was always disappointed she—Blackjack—wasn’t. That is also a sci-fi/fantasy action/adventure filled with rivers of blood and all kinds of physical and psychological trauma set in a post-apocalyptic world populated by magical talking ponies.
It’s a little much to go into except at broad strokes.
It’s not exactly tightly plotted, feeling more like a TV series than an individual novel. Somber’s writing at the start—that is to say, starting from roughly chapter two, as the first was heavily edited a year or two back—is comparable to what you see in The Elements of Discord, but improves over time. From approximately chapters two through five, it feels something like a copy of Fallout: Equestria, with pretty similar aesthetics, characters, first person perspective, intermittent reveals of the past through various forms of records, and setting, though with some moments more characteristic of Somber and his fondness for introspection. The sixth chapter, “Play,” is where I believe it starts to take on an identity of its own, with a well-executed horror story culminating with the characters trying to make the best out of a terrible life and death decision and an emotional appeal that I personally found effective.
Characters are a high point, with both main and supporting characters developed, each with their own problems, desires, quirks, and secrets. At least two entirely inanimate objects are interesting characters in their own right, and it’s fairly common for Somber to take the time to make an extra who never appears again interesting, unique, and sometimes even pathetic, exemplified by a tweaked out addict who hallucinates that the main characters are Moon Ponies, who has a moon cutie mark but has never seen the moon due to the permanent, complete clout coverage of the Equestrian Wasteland.
Action scenes can range from tense and drawn out to energetic and seeming to end in a heartbeat, but take many different forms, often relying on tricks or clever tactics, and, somewhat disappointingly often, explicitly called-out luck to reach their conclusion. This heterogeneity is crucial, because fight scenes come very frequently, often with multiple per chapter.
Somber’s setting and history are detailed and, for the type of reader who enjoys such things and isn’t repelled by the nastiness and sadness, potentially engrossing. The internal contradictions that popped up fairly regularly in “Rarity’s Rodeo” and Elements are largely absent, as it appears great care has been taken to keep things consistent both within itself and—mostly—with respect to Kkat’s novel. With that said, Somber fills in many of the open questions from Fallout: Equestria, and in some cases has taken the liberty of amending things, usually exploiting the fact the limited perspective of the source to avoid outright contradictions; examples include the death of Pinkie Pie and the nature of the Wasteland’s taint, in addition to larger expansions on the history of wartime Equestria and its government.
The tone ranges from comedic to depressing and angsty, to wistful, playful, or flirtatious, often within the same chapter. Sometimes this can be jarring, but most of the time feels entirely natural, coming from Blackjack’s swingy personality interacting with a world that’s gone to hell, but still retains traces of the cartoon made to sell toys to little girls.
Obviously, Project Horizons isn’t for everyone; if your limits were, or would be, pushed by Fallout: Equestria, they may well be exceeded by Somber’s story, whether that be in violence; the need to deal with a complicated plot and a number of mysteries, not to mention tracking dozens of recurring characters, factions, and locations; fandom or pop culture references (one character is an expy of a major character from Fullmetal Alchemist, one scene is taken from Star Wars, another from Ghost in the Shell, to give some of the most extreme examples); and pain, sadness, whining, and frustrating decisions necessitated by the nature of the main character. But beneath all that, you may well find powerful storytelling and a world and cast worth getting invested in.
Somber’s growth over the weeks and years has come on many dimensions, including stronger dialogue, improved ability to set and direct scenes, fuller characters, particularly original characters, and expanding scope readily visible among them. Beyond this, Somber’s stories from summer 2011 implicitly shared a single continuity, or at least points of continuity where details, such as the age of Sweet Apple Acres, differ. Where Somber started small, with stories focusing on one pony and one idea, he expanded over time by including digressions to fill out other characters as early as “Thicker Than Water,” and parallel subplots with “Rarity’s Rodeo” soon after the very, and fairly simple, beginnings of Project Horizons. At the start, he made little use of original characters, especially at the level of the framing story, being more comfortable using them in the backstories of “Simply Rarity” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” and not using them to particularly good effect in the present of “Thicker Than Water.” Since then, his stories have come to focus on original characters, starting with The Elements of Discord and making characters from the show peripheral to absent in the core, present story of Project Horizons.
One simple illustration of Somber’s development is through changes in his antagonists: “Blood, Sweat and Tears” had flat, uninteresting mortgage bankers; “Rarity’s Rodeo” Diamondback, an abrasive mare who detests the loss of what she thinks of as her forbears’ way of life and takes it out on Rarity and Applejack, whom she sees as representing the softening of the world; Elements brings the Nightmares, including on the one hand Screamer, something like a twisted version of Rainbow Dash, Fury, whose rage and passion left her with nothing but revenge, and Whispers, an enigmatic presence whose goals had yet to fully take form at the time of the story’s cancellation; and Horizons has a host of them, including an assassin under the thumb of his father, a once largely-sympathetic but dim and slightly misogynistic soldier who was transformed into a sociopathic monster by resentment and prison life, and a mad scientist who’s managed to convince himself he’s living for the sake of his family and is at times fighting against both the protagonist and what he sees as a greater evil, a threat to the entire world. And, to mix it up, at one point someone thoroughly detestable who delighted in the misery of others from start to finish. Alternatively, for a more concrete idea, compare examples of how Somber opened scenes in “Second Impressions,”
The Princess’ Gardens were a marvel of Equestria. Fluttershy had dreamt of it since she’d arrived on the ground; a place with animals from all over the world gathered together in one place. Animals she would never ever see around Ponyville she could finally meet. Babbaboons and wallerroos; ligers and banda bears and snowdeer; Hummingbirds that hummed and buzzards that buzzed. Everything about the garden should have inspired bliss in Fluttershy.
compared to late in Elements,
The afternoon light transformed the library into a patina of yellows and golds. The books, treasures from all across Equestria for their lore and scarcity, lay in neatly tended rows on the shelves in careful alphabetic order by category. Marble pillars rose to a graceful dome overhead; the stone apparently seamless thanks to Earth pony skill and Unicorn magic. The large round window set high in the wall created a spotlight effect in the center of the floor; and framed by golden light stood Princess Virtue calmly watching as a white unicorn taught Princess Celestia her letters.
or more recently, in Project Horizons,
Raptors were vessels of energy, of humming engines, blowing vents, vibrating plates, and the subtle press of winds on the hull. This Raptor felt more like a tomb. Its halls were dark, illuminated only by failing emergency lighting and a lone PipBuck lamp. Its air was like a held breath and filled with an ineffable weight. The armor plates were peeled away to reveal the conduits and plumbing beneath. The mare sighed softly in the gloom as she surveyed the damage. Then she continued through to the lit chamber at the end of the hall.
From a lower level technical perspective, Somber’s earlier writing is readily legible but somewhat error-prone, with apostrophe mistakes, punctuation errors principally related to starting or ending dialogue, homophone mix-ups, and capitalization errors all showing up repeatedly in most chapters, in addition to unusual, and sometimes inconsistent, formatting such as doubly indented paragraphs. This has improved considerably in Project Horizons, due in large part to his four current and two former editors.
More consistent is his ability to present a theme: even in weaker works, such as “Second Impressions” or “Thicker Than Water” communicate the frustrations of starting over from scratch or how letting go of past resentments can leave you better off, to say nothing of the exploration of one conception of generosity in “Simply Rarity” or the polemic “What’s Eating Rainbow Dash.”
Picking out one early story as the one most worth looking in to, beyond those Chris has ably discussed, I would suggest “Blood, Sweat and Tears” for an earnest and heartwarming backstory of the Apple family. For all I enjoyed the history, setting, and plot emerging in the later chapters, I sadly cannot recommend The Elements of Discord to anyone but a Somber completionist, due to some extremely frustrating early chapters and the fact it will almost certainly never be finished. For what might make an interesting experiment, though, you could try reading the first chapter and then skipping to the last scene in chapter five and continuing from there, or just starting at the last scene in chapter five. You would be missing some information, but might just be able to recover. For anyone with a great deal of patience and a considerable stomach for violence, especially anyone who enjoyed Fallout: Equestria, I would readily recommend Project Horizons.
Lastly, I encourage giving Somber’s newest story, Broken Accords, a shot. Its first chapter (all there is at the time of writing) goes by quickly, introducing a version of Equestria that feels different from the one he’s depicted before, drops a mystery in the reader’s lap, and makes time for a pretty tame—for Somber—action scene. As ever, he shows strength in presenting characters, which in this case begins from the first paragraph:
Being a weather pony in Ponyville wasn’t all that exciting. Okay. Make that unexciting. Strike that. Boring. Boring would definitely describe it, but it didn’t really express what she felt feeling of sitting in the back row of seats in Ponyville’s weather office. De-exciting? But it wasn’t precisely enough. Anti-exciting! That’s the ticket. Every last little bit of exciting was sucked out of it by the mare at the front of the room before the chalk board.