Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 111: All the Mortal Remains

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

I don't know exactly when I first watched Aladdin and the King of Thieves, but it was probably around the time when it was released on VHS, (1996).  As part of a compare-contrast lesson (and so that the kids can watch a movie at the end of the year), a couple of my classes are watching it this week.  There's a lot of referential humor in it that I definitely didn't get when I first saw it, and I was pleasantly shocked to discover that "that familiar voice" was John Rhys-Davies.  But one thing leapt out at me: in the movie, one of the palace guards discovers the password to the Forty Thieves' lair, and brings a crew to ambush and arrest them in their cave... then proceeds the flub the line, crying "Open... caraway!"

It took me almost twenty years to get that joke, and it was in no way worth it.  Whatever; my review of Cold in Gardez's All the Mortal Remains, below.

Impressions before reading:  Well, I'm a big fan of CiG's writing in principle, but this one's new to me; on the other hand, I thought that the author's gimmick (which he talked about in a blog post I read) of "Twilight talks to each of the other main characters, each of which knows one truth and one lie about the subject," sounded pretty, well, gimmicky.  Hopefully that's not the case, but regardless I still have high expectations for this one.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  In the aftermath of Tirek's destruction of the Golden Oaks Library, Twilight discovers an urn which had lain hidden in the basement since before she came to Ponyville.

Thoughts after reading:  To start, the gimmick: to my relief, it was left understated, to the point where I might not even have noticed had I not a) been specifically forewarned, and b) reading for a review (as opposed to giving the story a more casual read-through).  Twilight's conversations with her friends are short but natural, the "two facts, one of which contradicts or builds opposite a previous friends' assertion" setup being worked into actual dialogue rather than presented in a more blatant, less immersive way.  On a similar note, despite this story belonging to the "pony visits each other pony in turn, each getting their own scene" school of storytelling, it largely avoided imparting the sensation that a series of boxes were being checked as Twilight moved through the story.  With, perhaps, the exception of Pinkie, each scene from this section of the story feels like both an integrated part of the larger whole, and a logical, unforced piece of Twilight's week.

As I was hoping, the writing was excellent throughout; in addition to the strong dialogue, Gardez does some nice things with Twilight's narrative voice, using word choice to subtly emphasize mood.  In places, this leads to swings which I found rather  too abrupt.  A very early example: the sentences "The whole world could have fallen to Tirek, and the future would have held nothing but ghosts and entropy, a wasteland named in his honor, and an unbroken silence extending on forever" and "I leaned over to place a quick smooch on his forehead before he could draw away – he hated that mushy stuff, especially in public" are separated by a single paragraph, and while they do draw a distinction between her ruminations on the fate of Equestria and her happily less-complicated relationship with Spike, the speed of that swing in phrasing immediately struck me.  Still, the vast majority of the time, variations in word choice by Twilight-the-narrator were to the benefit of the story.

This is a fairly heavy story; the plot centers around Twilight figuring out what to do with another pony's remains, after all, and it also deals extensively with Twilight losing her home.  To his credit, Gardez uses a light touch throughout, avoiding heavy moralizing (the ending leaves several questions blessedly unanswered, or at least open to interpretation).  In particular, Fluttershy's scene could easily have come off as inappropriately dark, but the gentle handling here makes it feel like a natural outgrowth of her role in Ponyville.

My favorite element of the story, though, was the race-building that went into it.  Throughout the story, the author weaves bits an pieces of unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony lore and culture; from the offhanded observation that cremation is more common among pegasi than the other races to much deeper cultural assumptions, there's a huge amount of "shading in the racial outlines," to borrow a phrase, going on in this story--and all of it around the edges.  For a story that clocks in at under 10k words, that's important for two reasons: first, its presence gives the work depth that short stories sometimes struggle to attain.  And second, the fact that it never becomes the fic's raison d'etre means that it doesn't muddy the focus.  As it is, the twin foci are Twilight dealing with the destruction of the library, and the mystery of the urn.  These two plotlines are kept carefully connected and play into one another well, even before the conclusion ties the two together, and the result is a story which feels tight-knit despite its dual narrative lines.

Star rating:

This is the fourth CiG story I've given a long-form review... and the forth CiG story I've given four stars ("This story was well-written, interesting, and engaging. It is an undeniably impressive bit of writing").  Cold in Gardez: king of Chris-review quality consistency.

Recommendation:  Readers looking for a serious but not overwrought story about death and moving on will find what they're looking for here.

Next time:  The Brief Reign of Princess Twily, by Forthwith


  1. For having been a direct-to-video sequel, King of Thieves was surprisingly good (in ways Return of Jafar was not).

  2. I'm a little embarrassed by how long it took me to get that caraway joke. I had to look up what caraway was, and still didn't get it because I was too focused on the flubbed line and not the actual password. Freakin' lacuna matata all over again...

  3. I loved King of Thieves as a kid, but I watched it in Spanish because, well, when I was a kid I didn't know any English. All the Disney movies I've watched (and there are few I haven't) have been with the Spanish dub. That joke got translated pretty nicely, with a pun that worked in two different levels, and is abso-freaking-lutely impossible to translate to English. So I guess I can't really feel your pain here, Chris.

    As per the CiG story, I'll tell you what I told to PresentPerfect long ago: it's good? Wow. How shocking.

    Seriously, CiG is widely regarded as one of the big ones, right? It's not me. Everybody loves CiG. Him, Ghost of Heraclitus, Skywriter, Blueshift... He's part of that select group of "everything-we-touch-turns-to-gold" writers that one can't help but admire. Damn, man.

    Haven't read this particular story, though. Guess I'll give it a read, I like this kind of stuff.

    (Also, it took me a while to realize that "loci" counts as English and it's not just Latin. I got excited there for a minute. Damn it).

  4. I'll be the first to admit the shocking fact that I enjoy reading things that are written well, but from this review I've got to say that this story, to me, sounds extremely uninteresting.

    I remember once, when bored in school, I picked up a random book within arm's reach and read it. It wasn't a very long book, but the entire thing consisted of some weird introspective girl wandering around a city asking philosophical questions to birds and making overly-dramatic observations about extremely mundane things. Like garbage. And windows. It was from that point on that I started referring to stories that focus on the protagonist having intellectual discussions with a series of varying perspectives masquerading to look like different characters as "thoughtathons," and boy did that book ruin them for me.

    As far as this story goes, I've really got no right to claim any real judgement on it, seeing as I haven't read it, nor have I read any of Cold in Gardez's other stuff as far as I know (I'm not very savvy when it comes to keeping up with who/what is big in which circles, nor am I good at remembering names), but the line you quoted about ghosty wastelands and infinite extensions sounds a little too close to the well written version of the poetic flourishes from that other story for me.

    The thing that bugs me the most is that that terrible story's premise sounded so cool! It was something about a cat that stole the girl's soul, and she had to track it down by reliving the experiences that her soul was having without her. I thought it was going to be a supernatural fiction or something! But it wasn't. It was dumb. It was so dumb. I'm not trying to bash on All the Mortal Remains or Cold in Gardez or anything here, because I'm sure that if I were to read the story, it's very likely that it would be completely contrary to my preexpectations, and I would like it, but still. Just thinking about that crazy cat lady makes me want to find a pretentious person and punch them right in the solar plexus.

    1. Never read Col- I'm sorry, you have to rectify that immediately! Go read The Contest, Naked Singularity, The Trouble with Phoenixes, Small-town Charm and What We Wanted to Do. Those are all comedies. Everybody likes comedies. Read, laugh, love

    2. Yeah. At least one of those is good.

      *Backs away slowly*

      Anyway, this was pretty typical for CiG, from my point of view. pretty much flawless text, but the characters too-often feel like caricatures – two-dimensional templates fit only to move on the plot. His talent lies very much more in in the stories he tells rather than the characters he portrays. Since I read for characters rather than events, his work is hit and miss to me.

      This one is about a subject I don't find interesting and does absolutely nothing with the characters, so it's a miss. But at least I can see why others might like it.

    3. Well, in order to add some integrity to my whining, I went and read some of CiG's stuff. First I read The Contest, but found it to be surprisingly... cliche, I guess the word would be. The idea of a quiet contest was interesting, and the opponents were interesting, but other than that nothing really seemed "fresh."

      That story was old though, so I decided to read something newer to better get a feel for CiG's current style; his newest story, as a matter of fact, called The Destruction of the Self. It's a slice of life story like All the Mortal Remains, here, and I'm happy to announce that I found it extremely uninteresting. I understand why certain people would like it. It has a good emotional flow, if you want to call it that, but nonetheless I caught myself starting every chapter by letting out an exasperated sigh after reading the first line. It was a thoughtathon alright. Not anywhere near as pretentious or pointless as that cat soul book, but still really boring. It's a first person, present tense, interpretive take on that one town in the show where everyone is the same, with each chapter following someone from the previous chapter. Each day they all switch jobs and families randomly with each other, which is an interesting idea! But then it's not, because they're all boring. I don't know. Maybe it wasn't a good example because the theme was kind of that everything in the town was bland, but I feel like even then it could have been made more intriguing to read about anyway.

      From what I can tell, Cold in Gardez has good ideas, backed by good descriptions and technical skills (for the most part. There were still some typos I noticed), that are used almost exclusively to power disconnected talking heads. I really can't get invested in any of his stuff, either because the characters are too flat, or too inhumanly deep with their personal thoughts as to make them seem like they're reciting lines in a play. That's a good way to put it. CiG's stuff is very theatrical. Too much for my taste, but 4 out of 5 stars for Chris's, it seems. And, according to the comments on his stories, completely perfect in every way for many other people.

      I suppose if I were to give any helpful advice, I would have to agree with InquisitorM and say that he should try to focus on making his characters more unique and memorable. Even if his stories don't focus on character, having cookie cutter ones really drags the rest of the story down. Being groggy in the morning until getting that first cup of coffee is no way to live. Barely exchanging glances with the cashier as you casually drop a few bits on the counter while exiting the store is no way to live. Going to the gym twice a week! That's no way to live.

      Also the titles! Yeesh! Try to keep it under 5 syllables, man.

    4. No need to back away. "At least one" can potentially include all of them, which is how I'll choose to interpret that sentence :D

      I've got two CiG stories in my queue right now. I'll keep an eye out for the problems you guys mentioned as I read 'em. Gonna have to disagree about the titles, though. They don't seem too long to me, and there've been plenty of successful titles that are just as long. Just look at Dungeons & Dragons (granted, that one's easily and commonly abbreviated)!

    5. Well, it's genuinely reassuring to have someone else on the same page, for once (although I can't say I agree on titles).

    6. So I'm like, really curious. What is a story that you guys consider to have really stellar characterization?

    7. I've been trying to think of a good example just in case someone happen to ask that very question, but nothing immediately came to mind (which probably isn't a good sign). They're out there though! I'll share one when I find a good one.

      Though due to the fact that people are saying both that this story has great characterization and poor characterization makes me think that the real issue might be with their definition of "characterization." I find that to be the case with a lot of stuff.

    8. Right. I think my problem was that I got stuck thinking of movies and video games, but I wanted to avoid using any sort of visual media in this case, seeing as when it comes to showing vs telling in stories, they have a bit of an unfair advantage. It's a lot easier to hint at subtext for characters when you don't have to use text to do it, after all.

      Also an important point to point out, I think: Character and characterization don't mean the same thing. Characterization means more along the lines of describing a character's qualities, whereas my complaint was more about the personalities of CiG's characters. In the stories I read, the characters either seemed to be cut-and-paste stereotypes of the most basic traits of the characters from the show, or soulless entities whose personalities were described in great detail, but never really implemented. There was always this disconnect between what they said and who they were that made them seem written instead of alive.

      A good example (finally) of characters who do feel genuine to me are several characters in the book, The Phantom Tollbooth. It's been a very long time since I've read it, but I still remember the characters because of how unique and interesting they were. The main character, Milo, is an intelligent but disillusioned boy who, throughout the story, uses that intelligence to overcome the trials he faces along the way, and eventually discovers how to appreciate the world around him because of it. Throughout the book they don't ever outright say that he's intelligent from what I recall. As a matter of fact, from the start, they make it sound like he's actually pretty airheaded. His mannerisms, interactions with others, and general behavior demonstrate it in a way that lets you come to the realization on your own though.

      Other characters as well, such as Tock the watchdog, the Humbug, and the Soundkeeper are all characters that I've remembered for years purely because of how interesting they were to read about. Not just what they said or did, but because of how they fit into the world around them so well. It felt like they had a purpose, and a life outside of the story's boundaries.

      Admittedly The Phantom Tollbooth isn't a very realistic story, so perhaps it isn't fair to compare it to CiG's writing, which in most cases is set in a "realistic" type of mindset, so lets go to another example, which until just now I'd never actually read before: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

      Just as a preface here, I didn't find this short story particularly gripping either, but I still think the character was notable—which is important, because this story is about a single event that happens to a single person over a single day. And not a very interesting event at that. The story follows Walter Mitty as he runs errands, often getting distracted by daydreams while his wife gets her hair done. The thing that makes it interesting is seeing what these daydreams say about Mr. Mitty when compared to what’s actually going on around him. You can tell that he’s got an adventurous imagination that he uses in defiance against the dullness of his routine life. There’s depth to his character—once again which isn’t ever stated outright—that you pick up on along the way. Mr. Mitty’s characterization is shown via the words on the page, but his character is made clear intuitively through hints along the way, enough so that you could imagine what he would be like in any number of other situations.

      I think I might be hitting the character limit with this comment, so there isn’t much more I can say, perhaps other than I read the first chapter of CiG’s Salvation like he suggested, and my opinions have not been swayed. It still feels like his characters are trying to establish their character to the reader whenever they think instead of actually thinking, and that, to me, is a deal breaker.

    9. Yeesh. If you were to measure this comment section via a words-to-person ratio, I'd be having the majority of this conversation with myself. I should probably stop now.

    10. Just going through my 'favourites' as a starting point, I'd list:

      The Magician and the Detective
      A Cup of Joe
      Ribbons and Lace (which I still think Chris should add to his 'Fandom Classics' list)
      Tangled Up in Blues
      The Railway Ponies: Highball
      Five Hundred Little Murders
      The New Crop
      A Diamond and a Tether

      I think SeeVee hit the nail on the head by focusing on exactly what we both mean by characterisation in this case. To me, really good characterisation is when a character lives and breaths in such a way as they transcend the limited details of the story. They will come to exist in my mind in their own right because those details will hint at depths that can be pondered and explored even though they are never mentioned.

      In short, they feel like actual people. We can connect to them like they were actual people. I suppose the watchwords would be consistency and complexity: if you can manage both of those together, your characters probably pop out of the page. If they do nothing other than fulfil the role the plot requires of them, they're likely forgettable and bland because I'll see the contrivance more than the character.

      In essence, this is the same principle as show versus tell in terms of how a reader is engaged. Obviously, that depends a lot on the what the reader wants. Some people like superficial action films, but I can't stand them – trying to watch A Good Day To Die Harder was actually painful. Whether or not I like it, I have a strong emotional core and a half-baked character will stand out like it's covered head-to-toe in neon paint. It's a bit like the uncanny valley for facial approximation, wherein the brain instinctively rejects something that looks enough like a real person to trigger hard-wired analysis, but not enough to pass inspection as being real.

    11. So the secret to writing good characters is to be The Descendant? :p

      You have good taste. Three of those are in my "favourites", and I've liked all except the two I haven't read (one of which has been on my list for a little while)

    12. >Ribbons and Lace

      YES. I need to reread and review that.

    13. Thanks you guys very much for the input. I'll be checking out some of these suggestions.

  5. Chris, you're supposed to warn people before you review their stories! I almost missed this. I am, however, starting to despair of ever earning that elusive five-star rating from you.

    With regard to InquisitorM's and SeeVee's comments on my characters, I'll take that criticism to heart. It's not one I've heard before, but that doesn't mean it's not correct. I would, however, put forward stories like Salvation as a possible counterpoint. If that doesn't have well-developed characters, then I'd really need to see an example of a story that does.

    To SeeVee's other point, that The Contest was cliche and Destruction of the Self was boring, I can only argue that The Contest was written in 2011 – so yes, it would seem cliche today. As for DotS being boring, I suppose that's reasonable. It's not an event driven story.

    If you want to see what an even-driven story of mine looks like, consider The Wind Thief or The Carnivore's Prayer, or (on the older side) The First Light of Dawn. Those are much more about events than about explorations of a theme.

    1. Yeah, I'm totally waiting for Salvation to finish before I start reading it.

    2. Thanks for the suggestions, Cold in Gardez! It's always neat to see the actual writers of the stories Chris reviews show up here. I'm actually kind of surprised how much it happens. Anyway, sorry if I offended you with my previous comments. I did like the stories, for what they were. It's not like I regretted reading them afterwords or anything, but you know. Trying to give critiques in a comments section. Not exactly the best place for eloquent expoundification—especially when one tends to be as long-winded as I often tend to be.

      I would like to add, however, that even though I thought your one story was boring, I feel like if it had been more complete of a story, then I wouldn't have had that complaint so much. As it's just a few personal recounts of ponies' days, I didn't find it particularly gripping. Say it continued on where one of the characters leaves to reclaim their real life again though, or maybe you continued with the antihero thing and one tries to leave, but ends up simply not being able to deal and returns, finding himself right back where he started in the end; something like that would have given me more of a lesson to mull over.

      I'm not saying you should do that, of course. It's always better to move on to bigger and brighter things. I'm just trying to give a better example of where I'm coming from than I did before. Criticism is hard, but I'm trying to be honest! And not sound like a jerk in the process. I fear that sounding jerkish might be genetic though, and I can never truly escape it....

      Either way, I hope it helped, and if not, feel free to ignore me! You probably know more about what makes a good story than I do anyhow.

    3. Just read every single review like I do. Then you won't miss anything

  6. I forgot how much I liked this story until I re-read it just now. There are many specific things I could point out that I think this story does well. And a major one of those is the characterization, which I loved.