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Don't take this the wrong way; I thought Appleoosa's Most Wanted was a decent episode, all things considered. But as the episode ended looking at its moral, all I could think was, "there's no way that that can be reconciled with the first couple of seasons." Thematically, I mean; the idea of getting a cutie mark without knowing what it does, and one that actively sabotages your life until you figure it out, is a very cynical, jaded take on an idea that, while it's got plenty of potential to seem malignant, has previously been generally portrayed in a much more positive, less fridge-horror-y light. Honestly, I think this episode would have been better as fanfiction than as canon; in a fanwork, it would be a darker, more "real" examination of something the show couldn't touch on. As an actual episode, it felt jarringly malicious to Trouble Shoes.
And on an unrelated note, am I the only one stumped as to why we needed a tension-building scene with Sweetie using her magic to steal the key to the prison door, when they could have just grabbed it off the hook after they tricked the sheriff in to leaving? Maybe the girls just didn't think their plan through all the way. Anywho, click on down below the break for my review of Phoenix_Dragon's Without a Hive.
Impressions before reading: Seeing as this is a psuedo-sequel (sidequel?) to another story which I haven't read, I'm a little wary going into this dry. The description promises that this story "stands on its own," however, so let's hope that's the case. That aside, I'm leery based on the repetitive word choice and its/it's mix-up in the description, though the meat of the blurb seems to promise a solid enough premise. Color me interested but guarded.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A young changeling nymph, hoping to be chosen for the coveted duty of covertly collecting emotional energy for his hive, gets stranded in pony territory while on a training expedition. Without any way to get home or anyone who can help him, he has to figure out how to blend in and survive amongst the ponies... long-term.
Thoughts after reading: I've observed in the past that some stories are better read serially than in one sitting, and after finishing Without a Hive, I think it belongs in that camp as well. That's neither a good or bad thing, by itself; it simply reflects how the story is structured.
In this case, the fic is (despite being tagged an adventure) mostly low-key, and dwells amid the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life far more often than it delves into action and the like. This is for the best, frankly; the more action-centric segments, an early example being the disaster that strands Nictis (the protagonist) in Equestria, are among the weaker parts of the story (that scene, in particular, comes across as very contrived). This fic is at its best when it focuses on its changeling protagonist's attempts to simply live his life and accomplish his evolving goals.
However, at nearly 200,000 words, the mostly low-stakes plot can create a fug of dullness if binge-read. Hence, my suggestion that this is better suited to serial consumption. And in fact, the story holds together well, taken one or two chapters at a time; given the frequent timeskips and changes of location, but relatively small cast of characters, it's easy to keep track of who's who while also feeling plenty of sectional momentum. It helps that the major characters are all vividly (if broadly) characterized, and given memorable traits which extend beyond informed attributes to help keep them distinct.
Characterization is, in fact, one of the big draws here. Nictis's attitude toward ponies isn't exactly an uncommon one in changeling fanfiction (that they're resources meant to be exploited for maximum effect (sustenance)), nor is his character arc. But what makes this story so much more than just another "changeling learns about ponies" story is how Nictis's worldview slowly and organically evolves, rather than being completely static... or worse (and more common), being static up until some epiphany, then completely reversing. Instead, this fic has him develop his personality and worldview in a halting, piecemeal way which feels like a logical outgrowth of his upbringing and life experiences. That kind of believability is relatively rare in fanfiction, and it was nice to see it here.
Voicing is of somewhat more variable quality. Nictis's voice is sometimes of the "stiltedly formal" variety, presumably to show that pony-speech his natural mode of communication, but the irregularity with which it's done makes it simply look like poor writing. Likewise, the narrative voice varies between impartial and informal, going from carefully distant to lines like "changeling hunting sucked" and back with some regularly. On the plus side, the writing issues I feared from the description never really materialized; while the technical construction is often staid, it's well-edited and (voicing issues notwithstanding) doesn't draw any undue attention to itself.
Pacing on the work as a whole is inconsistent. Several recurring character arcs never get a satisfactory resolution, and the last few chapters bring some abrupt developments which are never adequately explained. The side-quel I mentioned earlier answers some of those questions, but other elements remain frustratingly unexplored. The good news on these fronts is that all the major character arcs are brought to logical endpoints from an events standpoint, if not necessarily a thematic one, and that Nictis's personal arc is satisfactorily completed by the time "the end" rolls around.
This is probably best viewed as an extended character piece, and while it meanders mightily, those meanderings are often endearing and interesting in their own right.
Recommendation: Readers looking for something character-based, relatively unchallenging, and good for broken-up reading will probably find this well-suited to their interests. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone seeking a lot of action or quick pacing, though a sedate reading schedule may ameliorate those weaknesses.
Next time: Pinkie Watches Paint Dry, by AbsoluteAnonymous