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A slightly-belated welcome home, everyone who went to Babscon (which was, apparently, every author I follow and then some). From what I read, it sounds like it was a lot of fun! Also, that reminds me that I need to see what's happening with MLP-MSP, a.k.a. "That con that's close enough that I can actually attend it." Woo, human interaction!
But enough about real people; let's talk about imaginary ones for a while! My review of Arad's Stardust awaits, below the break.
Impressions before reading: I've seen this called "the best PoE (Pony on Earth) story in the fandom" by more than one person, and while that's not a genre I have much interest in inherently, I'm certainly on board for "best." It turns out it's also an XCOM crossover; since I don't even know what "XCOM" is (yet), I'm really hoping this turns out to be accessible; I'm optimistic on that front, though, since the people who recommended this didn't preface it with any "some of it probably won't make sense unless..." stuff, which is pretty common when someone suggests I review a crossover.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Celestia tasks Twilight and the girls with reforming Discord, he offers Twilight an opportunity: pass his "test of friendship," and he'll forswear evil. When she accepts, she finds herself unceremoniously deposited in the middle of a warzone, far from home... and a group of human soldiers find the first non-hostile alien they've ever encountered.
Thoughts after reading: First, a few thoughts on accessibility: there's not much here that can't be appreciated even by someone with zero knowledge of XCOM. The technological/research elements of the game are both well-explained and well-integrated. The one story element that really bothered me in this regard was that it was never clear how widespread knowledge of the alien assault was. At times, the news bulletin-style chapter introductions made XCOM seemed to be at men-in-black levels of secrecy, with the public and even major governments and militaries completely unaware that there was an alien invasion going on; at other times, the fact of alien assault seemed common knowledge. Since it was never clear how secret the war was supposed to be (though it was always clear that XCOM's existence as an extra-military unit with alien-based technology was some level of secret), nor how much that changed over the course of the fic, the broader scope of the story is somewhat hard to picture.
But the story doesn't primarily concern itself with global politics. Instead, it focuses on Twilight, the military unit that captures/rescues her, and their interactions. This proves to be a good choice, and Stardust shines as an example of an extended first-contact scenario. I was consistently impressed with the way the story envisioned humans reacting to a magical talking pony showing up in the middle of a warzone; too many stories with a similar premise either spend one or two chapters (if that) on "drama" before everyone/pony is friends, or else casts humanity as a pack of vicious yet angsty psychopaths (I have no idea why the latter, specifically, is so common... but it is). Here, the difficulties of learning to interact with an alien race, even one with remarkably similar morals and personality, are neither glossed over nor exaggerated past the point of absurdity.
This is helped by the strength of Twilight as a character. Arad does a wonderful job of keeping her personality clear and consistent, and of positing how she might handle death and other, more "real" dangers for which she's seemingly ill-equipped. Her curiosity, naivete, and general desire to be helpful are all key story elements, and all fit her character well.
But the humans in the story didn't, collectively, stand up as well. Several of the minor characters are disappointingly one-dimensional. A couple begin this way before being expanded upon; Dr. Vahlen begins the story as a caricature of every joyless, amoral scientist ever, before gaining an actual personality halfway through the story. But her development doesn't make her behavior in those early chapters any less cheesy. Thankfully, the two major(est) human characters are both quite a bit more convincing from the get-go.
The characterization of the ponies back in Equestria leaves something to be desired, however. While this is only really an issue at the very end of the story, it was jarring to hear characters like Shining Armor deliver wooden, awkward lines like "I do not ask because I doubt your judgement but I am simply curious as to why you did what you did," especially when the author had spent the previous 200,000 words demonstrating an ability to write far more convincing dialogue than that. While there were similar issues in earlier places, and while (on a note that I strongly suspect to be related) several key character moments are presented in unrealistically exaggerated-for-drama fashion, this is generally the exception rather than the rule.
The story is full of in-universe supplemental chapters and scenes, and these are a mixed bag. At their best, they expand the setting in an immersion-enhancing way while helping to flesh out some of the scientist characters. At their worst... at one point, there's a 5000-word chapter which is nothing but technical specs and in-universe researcher descriptions of various magic-augmented weapons. In general, though, I enjoyed the idea, though the execution often left a bit to be desired; even allowing for the fact that "supplemental notes" are, by their nature, somewhat informal, I found the casual tone struck in those notes occasionally jarring.
More generally, the writing in this piece is fairly solid. Although some of the lower-key scenes drag a bit (Twilight learning how to play cards stuck out particularly in this regard), pacing is generally one of the fic's stronger points. I was particularly impressed by how the author was able to overlap scenes when switching POVs without the material becoming unbearably repetitious. For the most part, this is a story that does an excellent job of holding the reader's interest, despite its length and wide-ranging plot.
One of those plot elements fell very flat for me, however: a romantic angle which is (lightly) explored between Twilight and one of the humans. It's not the subject matter that particularly bothered me; the author was smart enough not to let it take over the story, nor take it anywhere creepy. Rather, it was the painfully teen-drama way in which the subject was handled, which both reduced two major characters to suspension-shattering obliviousness and briefly made XCOM look less like a highly structured military installation than a high school. To repeat, though: this wasn't a central plot point. Instead, this was primarily a story about Twilight coming to Earth and, well, being Twilight. And, concurrently, about a group of humans fighting
on behalf of the human race while trying to figure out what to do about the disarmingly pleasant unicorn who's shown up in their midst. And these two stories, and their confluence, aren't just the real meat of the fic: they're also consistently enjoyable to read.
As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, I usually find long stories harder to rate than short ones, just because there's so much more to evaluate. In 220,000 words, Stardust has some pretty dull moments, some glaring typos, and some plot missteps. But by and large, those aren't the parts that stick out to me the most as I think about the story. What sticks with me is the mix of humor, action, and inquisitiveness which drive the story, and which make it vibrantly interesting across its epic length.
Recommendation: Anyone looking for a long-form story that uses interspecies war as a backdrop but friendship and basic human decency as its raison d'etre should check out Stardust.
Next time: Heart to Heart, by Crosis