Friday, February 20, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 96: Believing Stories

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

Tis the season for standardized testing.  Yay.

And trust me, the kids are just as excited as the teachers.  Nothing like spending all day writing, and then not even getting to find out your grade for two months, right?  The only plus, if you can call it that, is that I've got plenty of time to read when there's no lesson to plan.  At least, until testing's over and we all have to scramble to figure out how to fit three weeks worth of end-of-semester stuff into six eight days.  But for now, have my review of Typewritererror's Believing Stories, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  The whole premise is a little worrying, not because there's anything inherently awful about it, but because "Pony X wakes up and is a human!  Was it all a dream?" and variations thereon have been done poorly so often that the whole idea leaves me a little leery.  But putting that aside, I do like a well-spun psychological thriller, which is what this looks like it will be.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Celestia wakes up one morning, not as Princess of Equestria, but as a young woman being held in a mental institution.  At first she's certain it's a trick by Discord, but as time passes, she begins to believe that perhaps Equestria is the trick, and this is reality.

Thoughts after reading:  A story like this depends, in great part, on how successful its mindscrews are.  There are indeed some mindscrews in here, but they didn't typically come from where I was expecting them to.  This was, in places, both to the benefit and detriment of the story itself.

On the positive side, secondary characters like the two assistants and later, Sombra, are welcomely opaque in their motives and even fundamental natures.  The story gives just enough hints as to what these characters' goals are to let the reader try to fill in the blanks, but keeps enough reserved that twists and revelations still surprise without (mostly) feeling like they've come totally out of left field.

On the other hand, I was pretty disappointed by the way the ambiguity of what had happened to Celestia (or Celeste, as her "human" name is) is handled.  There's never any question--at least, from the reader's perspective--that she really is Princess Celestia, and that her humanization and trip to an institution is some sort of trick or alteration.  However, the nature of that trick or alteration is never entirely made clear, even at the end of the story.  While I respect the choice to try to maximize ambiguity at the end, there were too many threads, including some very fundamental ones, left loose for me to feel satisfied with the conclusion.  Meanwhile, the fact that it was extremely clear from the very first that Celeste really was Celestia sapped the early part of the fic of a lot of its power; as the story progresses there are other mysteries to explore, but "is Equestria real or not?" is what the fic opens with, and it's never really in doubt.

To be fair, however, some of the touches which made clear that human-land wasn't entirely "real" helped create a nicely surreal atmosphere.  Less convincing than the atmosphere, though, was Celestia's characterization.  Although I was willing to give "Celeste" some pretty broad allowances (after all, to what extent is she really "Princess Celestia?"), major revelations hinge on Celestia back-when-she-was-a-pony doing things that I had a great deal of trouble reconciling with the character from the show.  This Celestia seems vicious, petty, and above all power-hungry, and though she expresses regret for all that (the actions in question are well in her past), it's such an unexplained departure from what we've actually seen of her that I had trouble swallowing it.

I feel I should also mention that there are a fair number of editing errors, mostly of the "not-quite-the-right-word" sort (e.g. "she kept her trembling at minimal") and a few too few commas, though nothing that inhibited comprehension.  Sorry, I couldn't quite work that up to a full paragraph, and it didn't really fit anywhere else.

Star rating:

This story kept me engaged until the end, and that's definitely something worth recognizing.  However, it kept me engaged despite rather than because of its central hook, and the payoff was... "nonexistent" is too strong, but "minimal" feels about right.

Recommendation:  If you like mindscrews, this story definitely delivers, though not necessarily in the ways you expect (which might be a selling point to some, in fact).  I'm not sure I'd recommend it to a reader without a specific interest in the genre, nor to one who's put off by incomplete endings, but those looking for more questions than answers might want to give it a shot.

Next time:  One in a Million, by ocalhoun


  1. Must it always be a mental institution?

  2. I've read this before, and I don't remember being particularly impressed by it. I gave it a like and apparently left a comment saying that I'd be following it from now on, but it's nowhere in my favourites list, and judging by the age of my comment, this was back in the time when a like and a favourite came hand-in-hand from me. A like on its own at that time usually meant a severely flawed story that I saw potential in, which I suppose in this case would've been because of the interesting concept.

    All this time on, though, I can't really remember much of anything about the story itself. I remember Celestia, Discord and I think maybe Screwball, but I have no memory of Sombra being in the story, my mind is completely blanking on the ending (even though I saw the fic through to its conclusion), and I honestly can't recall anything else about the plot other than the initial set-up.

    So overall, I can't say I'd recommend this either. If anyone's interested in the concept, I think their time would be better served reading Asylum.

    1. I caught up with Asylum this week, and I whole heartedly second this opinion.

    2. I'll third that. Asylum is just bafflingly fascinating.

    3. I'm actually way behind on Asylum though, like I am on everything. I need to set aside a day power through the remaining chapters.

  3. Wow, I remember reading this way, way back when. I don't remember Sombra, so it must have been before it was rewritten. To see it brought back up, even if briefly, was a weird nostalgic moment for me.