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And so, the Fandom Classics reviews finally hit triple digits. Onward! Onward, I say! Onward, specifically, to SFAccountant's lengthily-named Iron Hearts: Book 1 - Planetfall.
Impressions before reading: After reading the description, I'm concerned that this is going to be a Warhammer 40k fanfic with ponies, rather than one truly accessible to non-40k-ers. I have only the most cursory knowledge of 4ok, so hopefully this doesn't lose me right away, or its going to be a long 130,000 words.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A group of vicious human mercenaries lead by people who range from "hyper-aggressive psychopaths" to "relatively staid psychopaths" lands in Equestria, pursuing an alien species whom they raid, pirate from, and sometimes murder just for fun. Against all odds, these mercenaries also end up getting along quite well with the ponies.
Thoughts after reading: My pre-reading fears were partially realized; although it's possible to read and enjoy this story without knowing much of anything about the setting it crosses over with (I made a point not to look anything up until I finished the story, to see how far "it's a sci-fi wargame, right?" would get me), the fic's opening does little to explain the setting or environment of the universe at large, and from beginning to end there are plenty of smaller elements which aren't fully explained (what various creatures, vehicles, and weapons are/look like, for example) which can be a mild barrier to comprehension. However, the gist of it all is easy enough to pick up, and while it was clear that I was occasionally missing details as I read (and while that always annoys me as a reader), once the story kicked off I never found myself at a total loss to explain what was going on.
Despite what you might expect from a 40k/MLP crossover, this story is primarily a comedy. And I have to say, the humor here consistently had me grinning. A lot of it is based on juxtaposing the lack of value the humans place on life (their own or others') with the mores of Equestria, either by showing the ponies passive-aggressively pointing out the obvious ("'It's okay,' Fluttershy said gently, 'I know Mister Terrifying Murderer is very violent and objectively an awful, horrible person, but Rainbow Dash is doing a very good job of keeping him from harming us'") or by directly contrasting human/pony ethics ("'[...]ah feel real bad for 'em,' Apple Bloom said, glancing at the men in red overcoats, "a bunch o' their friends died.' ¶ Rainbow Dash watched as a couple of the human gunmen got up from the corpse of one of their own, their pockets full of ammunition, ration packs, and small amulets with some kind of eight-pointed star on them. 'Gotta say, they're taking it really well'"). Planetfall is full of dark humor, but doesn't ever fall into the trap of just being "dark, but with occasional jokes;" the tone is never overly oppressive, and the author shows a knack for other forms of comedy at times, too.
However, the fact that the tone isn't always oppressive doesn't mean it's without issue; blending two settings as far-removed as these two leaves plenty of rough edges, and a certain amount of "just go with it" is ultimately required of the reader. The main six--and the ponies, generally--are far less traumatized than one might expect them to be by violent death and battle, to name the obvious point, but a lot of the Equestrians' passivity in the face of murderous mayhem comes down less to "it makes sense in context" than "this is what the story requires." On the flip side, my understanding (after doing a little following up on the 40k elements) is that the Chaos army has been significantly "softened" to fit the needs of the narrative as well. Personally, I find a certain amount of this kind of flexibility forgivable in a comedy (PTSD isn't usually all that funny), but more than once I was distracted by the easy acceptance the ponies showed.
Leaving all the stuff from the previous paragraph aside, characterization was a mixed bag. Twilight does a nice job as the voice of reason, and Dash's reckless pursuit of awesomeness (here turned up to 11) feels right at home in the fic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Pinkie is a major disappointment, frequently being reduced to lazy fourth-wall jokes. Characterization is strong and memorable for most of the humans as well, though it's not until well into the story that the commanders--who are some of the first characters the reader meets, before the plot follows a small group of human scouts down to the planet--gain much personality.
By way of a warning, this story is not complete by itself. Unlike some stories I've reviewed, that didn't feel like much of a bait-and-switch to me--it literally says "Book 1"
right in the title--but readers looking for a fully self-contained reading experience may want to take note. That said, Planetfall does close its arc nicely, while still leaving some "big stuff" hanging over the reader's head; in terms of "completeness," think The Maze Runner.
In the end it was the overall structure of the fic that impressed me the most. There's a lot going on here, between the two different races of hostile-ish aliens landing in Equestria, general battle and mayhem, several side plots involving secondary ponies, hints of how magic "really" works, and on and on. It would be easy for the whole to feel horribly disjointed but SFAccountant does a nice job juggling multiple storylines while keeping the tempo brisk (always important in a comedy). Even the battle descriptions are heavily interspersed with enough banter, cut-aways, and other humor that they never feel like a slog... and that banter and those cut-aways don't feel like unwelcome intrusions, either. There's a remarkable sense of flow to the piece, considering how many disparate parts it has.
When I evaluate stories, one of the things I think about is my engagement level; how eager was I to pick a story back up after a break? How much did my attention wander? While I had my issues with this story, it was one that was easy to keep reading, and never felt like a chore to slog through. Heck, I'll probably go on to the sequels; that's always a sign that a story's either good, or at least that it does something right.
Recommendation: If you like stories which mix black humor with a decidedly un-bleak tone, this hits that sweet spot. If you're particularly sensitive to characters under-reacting to violence, or to crossovers generally, this is probably one to avoid.
Next time: A Simpler Time, by DJLowrider