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Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day! I didn't even know that until yesterday afternoon, but I'm completely pumped to celebrate it. Said celebration will consist of of putting out an extra ear of corn on the squirrel feeder, then appreciating the squirrels as they viciously try to keep one another from actually eating any of it (and failing miserably). Sure, it may not be nearly as important as the other holiday we (Americans) had this week, but just like big things are worth fighting for, sometimes little ones are worth celebrating.
My review of Autumn Wind's To Be a Better Stallion, below the break.
Impressions before reading: I've had good luck with Blueblood fics in the past, to the point where just seeing him on the cover has me optimistic right off the bat. Hard to say much from the description, though: a romantic comedy about Blueblood trying to reform and woo Rarity could be hilarious, or it could end up as nothing but an exercise in tired cliches. Seeing as I'm about to read 60,000 words of it either way, I'm very much hoping for the former.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Blueblood, smitten with Rarity despite the "challenges" of their first encounter at the Gala, comes to Ponyville to woo her. But when he realizes that she finds him a boor (and when he realizes that he is, in fact, a boor) he resolves to change himself for the better... and enlists some Apple-family help to do so.
Thoughts after reading: I'll give To Be a Better Stallion this: it doesn't wallow in cliche. It's often obvious where the story is going and the trip there may be trite, but the author is aware enough not to indulge in the kind of half-understanding apery that fills too many works of fiction, fan- and otherwise. In fact, I could talk about how this story avoided a variety of common pitfalls, from the fundamental (grammar) on up. Unfortunately, the story doesn't do much besides avoid the negatives.
To begin, there's virtually no conflict in this story. That seems odd to say, given the premise, but after Blueblood realizes that he's a ponce at the end of chapter one, character motivations are almost entirely in alignment: Rarity, Blueblood, and literally everyone else are all hoping he turns into "a Better Stallion," his progress is rapid and without hitch... everything goes about as smoothly as it possibly could. Meanwhile, plot points that could be used to create conflict or simply to deepen characters are brought up in a remarkably perfunctory manner, then often ignored altogether. Near the middle of the story, BB learns for the first time why he never knew his father, and this information has the potential to totally redefine his concept of himself (and to reframe his mother's role in his upbringing entirely). Instead, BB mentally notes that his childhood makes more sense now, and the subject never comes up again in the entirety of the fic.
Another issue is sometimes-poor linkage between behavior and moral. Many times in this story, questionable moral equivalences are drawn, which I have always found bothersome. More troubling, though, are the occasions when BB seems to get credit (narrative credit; not necessarily credit from the other ponies (though usually that, too)) for growing as a person/pony without showing any real change in behavior. In one of the earlier chapters, for example, he's reflecting on his latest lesson--that you can't just be nice when it's convenient for you--and gets a chance to "demonstrate" it by paying for another pony's pastries who forgot her coinpurse. While that's a nice gesture and all, an incredibly rich (the story does make clear he's incredibly rich) person spending a few bucks to assuage their guilt is the very definition of "being nice when it's convenient for you." It's not that it's not a nice gesture--but it doesn't fit well with the ostensible lesson. There and on other occasions, character arc and informed development seem to diverge, sometimes radically.
But in the end, perhaps these complaints are a little off the mark, because To Be a Better Stallion is best judged not as a story, but a shipping vehicle. It is a means to get several sets of ponies--primarily BB and Rarity, obviously, but two other couples have significant subplots--together, and the nearly painless, drama-averse way they're set up testifies to the fact that their happiness is more important than story design. For readers who just want to see some characters pair off and be happy, this accomplishes that. But what it doesn't do is anything much other than build up and mold those characters enough to make their pairings believable (to be fair, it does do that).
Other than that, there's not much to say. Character voices are a bit of a weak point (especially Big Mac's--while I know some authors take the "Eee-up" gag too far, he isn't a terribly talkative guy, and here he becomes awfully verbose at times), but are all recognizable and never grating. Such quick-vanishing conflict as there is is kept light and fluffy, and while the pace is lightning-quick past credulity (it's hard to tell, but it appears that the entire story sans epilogue takes place over the course of just a few days), it at least doesn't drag.
From a technical perspective, this is competently written. As far as concept goes, there's a promising one here. But the actual product, despite having many opportunities to do so, is such a linear, unified march that it's hard to get too excited about it.
Recommendation: As I said above, this is probably best viewed as a shipping vehicle. If Rariblood (is that the portmanteau?) is your thing, this does a nice job of showing what they'd need to do to get together. Past that audience, I think most readers would find this unobjectionable but uninteresting.
Next time: The AppleDash Project, by bookplayer