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For reference, it only took about two hours after the start of the March Madness tournament for my bracket to bust. Fun fact, not one, but two 14 seeds beat 3 seeds on the first day... but Notre Dame, the three seed I actually picked to lose, won (of course). Oh well, it's not like I ever expect to win these things, anyway. Anyhoo, check out my review of Alextrazsa's The 63rd Rune, below the break.
Impressions before reading: Well, this is a story I mostly know about as "the gender-swap fic that isn't On a Cross and Arrow," which I reviewed way back here. My first impressions of this story are pretty much the same as they were for that one: the premise doesn't really interest me, I hope it doesn't get unpleasantly creepy or depressingly stupid, but based on his track record, I'm giving the author the benefit of the doubt. Onward!
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Twilight messes up a spell and accidentally turns all her friends into stallions--and Spike into a girl. Worse, she doesn't know how to fix it, and the solution may not come easy.
Thoughts after reading: I generally don't like to directly compare stories when I write reviews, so don't expect a detailed comparison of this story with On a Cross an Arrow from me. That said, let's start with one thing both fics have in common: technical quality issues. While The 63rd Rune is unquestionably the better-edited of the two, it's still got a fair number of editing issues, both isolated and recurring (its/it's confusion is the most common example of the latter). Another commonality is the amount of LUS (Lavender Unicorn Syndrome; the propensity to replace names or pronouns with short descriptions, e.g. referring to Twilight as "the lavender unicorn"). While The 63rd Rune is, again, the lesser offender, this story is still full of "the animal-loving pegasus," and "his buttery friend" in place of Fluttershy (or rather, Butterscotch).
Even beyond that, writing is a weak point in this story. Odd saidisms are common, and sentence structure is very repetitive, especially in the early going. Additionally, words are used irregularly with some frequency ("he brought part of the mixture to his mouth, and with a nervous gulp, ingested it"). Meanwhile, voicing is hit-and-miss; while the characters are generally well-differentiated, Celestia sounds more like a plot device than a character (to be fair, she sometimes does on the show as well), and Zecora's scene is at times painful ("Dash is right, you should not linger. In fixing your problem, she is quite eager").
Speaking of characterization: for those keeping track, I'll add that this is a pre-S2 fic, so adjust your Luna expectations accordingly. I have no problem with her portrayal here with that in mind--though I admit that I scowled at the abacus reference. I'd forgotten how pervasive a thing that was. In fact, this whole story is almost aggressively 2011-ish in its tone and style; just go look at that first sentence of the summary again! Ah, nostalgia.
The story itself is mostly setpieces, and this is where the story seems most at home. From ancient abodes to mausoleums, and even to less dramatic setting, Alextrazsa does a good job coming up with vibrant settings for the story. When it comes to the actual events that shape the fic, though, things have a very noticeable tendency to happen because they need to for the story to take shape. Strangely specific magic-nullifiers, multiple means of instant-communication, and the like are constants throughout the story. While a certain amount of contrivance is to be expected in most any story, many of the examples in this fic seemed needless; to go back to the instant communication magic, these (two different!) spells, one of which it's hard to imagine Celestia not having given Twi long ago, are only needed because Spike wasn't with the main six at those points... and there was no terribly good reason why he wasn't to begin with. A lot of the more credulity-straining events, actions, and items from this story were distracting not just because they were very convenient to the story, but because so many of them seem distractingly unnecessary.
What really struck me as odd about this story, though, was that it doesn't seem like it needed to use gender-swapping at all. The fact is, The 63rd Rune leaves this, its primary element, almost entirely unexplored. Beyond a few casual observations that mares think Dash is hot and that Rarity would look good in a suit and the like, the only real exploration of the whole gender-changing thing comes from a subplot with Octavia. While that subplot does shed some interesting light on Dash, it's also the only time in the story when the changes the ponies have gone through are given any specific focus (and in any case, it feels very out of place pacing-wise, at least in her first appearance). True, there's a "race against time for the cure" element to the whole story, but there's nothing about it that's specific to the idea of changing gender, or to altering one's body. Given that the title literally references rule 63, I was befuddled by how little was done with the story's biggest hook.
There's a competent collection-quest story hidden here, but between the lackluster writing, the overabundant contrivances, and the failure to utilize the story's fundamental premise, it often feels buried.
Recommendation: If the very idea of r63 ponies excites you, this might be worth a look. But if you're looking for much to be done with the idea beyond "they're guys now," or if you're put off by excessive plot conveniences, this is probably not the fic for you.
Next time: Scootaling, by GrassandClouds2