Let's call this the Outside Insight not-even-close-to-a-wrapup: four stories, all of which are from that contest, that I've read recently for fun (as opposed to for Fandom Classics or for the RCL--I've read at least a couple for the latter, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if one or two eventually end up on the former). Click on down below the break to see what I read, and what I thought of it. Them. Whatever.
Rise, by Blueshift
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A young breezie comes of age amidst the backdrop of her people's eternal war with ponykind, and the looming threat of winter.
A few thoughts: Let's start out strong: this story was absolutely wonderful. Blueshift may be best known for his random/comedy, but stories like this show that a great author can write any kind of story. While it still finds grounding in the Equestrian setting and its light-humorous air, Rise takes that setting and wonderfully grounds the breezies' fearful-yet-resilient mentality within it. The result is a story that's genuinely touching, expands the lore of Equestria in unexpected but brilliantly realized ways, and tells a classic hero's tale in a novel, dramatic, thoughtful way.
Recommendation: I have only good things to say about this story (okay, maybe one or two bad things; it bothers me that someone could write something great like this, but still types "span" instead of "spun"), and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes dramatic worldbuilding and dramatic storytelling in equal measure.
...Nor the Battle to the Strong, by MagnetBolt
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Griffon Commander Astrid meets with Celestia under the guise of "peace talks," only to discover that her people's ancient enemy remains unpredictable and alien.
A few thoughts: Griffons have been portrayed as Klingons-lite (or sometimes, Kingons-heavy) many times in fanfiction, so this story doesn't really cover any new ground on that front. That said, it covers it convincingly enough, and there are some novel touches here--Astrid's reason for fearing the way ponies kill was a wonderful touch of perspective, of just the sort this contest was meant to produce. I was pretty disappointed by the ending, though; everything wraps up tidy and neat via timeskip, and the drama of the first part is pretty well negated by the quick-and-dirty exposition of "and this is how everything went." It's not that the ending was bad intrinsically, but in context it weakened the first act dramatically.
Recommendation: Fans of diplomacy might want to read the first chapter; it ends on a satisfying enough note to take independently. I don't particularly recommend the whole-fic experience, thought.
Moot Model, by Sarcasmo
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Daisy wants to be a fashion model, even though she knows it's impossible for someone like her to appear in a fashion magazine. Still, she works up enough nerve to try--barely.
A few thoughts: I had a weird sort of cognitive dissonance as I read this: on one hand, I could see pretty clearly what the author was going for, and it was a good message (if a bit hokey, but hey, I can dig a hokey message), and looking through the comments, it's clear that that's what the other readers (including some people whose opinions I respect) saw. But at the same time, the entire ending read to me like a classic tale of the White Man's Burden: the donkeys are too stupid/unindustrious/weak-willed to have any fashion of their own, so it's up to the clever/industrious/enterprising ponies to bring fashion to them. It's entirely possible I'm grasping at straws here, but I kept making uncomfortable comparisons to plantation novels as Daisy is empowered by Photo Finish, without whom she (and donkeykind) are apparently incapable of producing any meaningful contributions in an artistic field.
Recommendation: This story left me feeling very uncomfortable, but I can't say for sure that it wasn't just me. If you think my problems with this fic aren't liable to bother you, then this could still be read as an uplifting tale of someone finding the confidence to do something with themselves.
Let Them Eat Grass, by Cloudhammer
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A sheep thinks to wonder why ponies don't have to live inside of fences.
A few thoughts: My biggest thought after reading was "why on earth is this tagged comedy/SoL?" This earns every bit of the dark tag through its portrayal of the slavery of complacency; the sheep are literally too passive and content to care about how they're being used. That notwithstanding, this story does a nice job of showing that oppression, often as not, doesn't look like Sombra's cackling, chain-intensive MO. More often, it's just doing what's easy, what works... and what cedes all authority to someone else.
Recommendation: Anyone looking for a dark psychological tale (whether intended or not, there are plenty of parallels here to modern politics) will definitely want to check them out. And I guess if you don't think about it too hard, it's also a story about sheep being funny.