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The Tour de France is over, which means I can stop getting up early again. At least for another month or so, anyway. Ugh; I didn't like early mornings a decade ago, or two decades ago, or... we're gonna stop that before I date myself, but the point is, I never liked early mornings. What was younger me thinking, when he decided to get a job that would require getting up early all year except during the summer, and then decided to become a fan of cycling, which requires getting up early in the summer, too?
Bleh. Bleh, I say! But hopefully I won't have to say "bleh" about Georg's The Monster in the Twilight. Find out if it's my lucky day, below the break.
Impressions before reading: The AU tag is always a little concerning going in--too many authors take it as an excuse to make characters and setting subservient to the needs of the plot, rather than letting the former guide the latter. And the description is, frankly, not well-written; run on, incorrect punctuation... I've read a couple other of Georg's stories, so I'm guessing based on past experience that these aren't going to be problems endemic to the story, but it's still not a great first impression.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When young Twilight's magic surged out of control during her entrance exam for Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, it nearly destroys her, and Celestia is forced to use her magic to send what's left of her deep into the Everfree Forest, before she destroys all of Canterlot with her magical flailing. Now, as the time of Nightmare Moon's return comes close, Celestia must face her failure to develop a solution, Cadence and Shining Armor scour the woods in search of their long-lost sister, and dangerous creatures lurk the Everfree... including something that was once a pony, and is beginning to remember herself.
Thoughts after reading: There's a lot to like about this story--but most of it doesn't come until at least a little ways into the story. Thankfully, the AU element that I was worried about wasn't one of them. Georg takes a single idea, and spins from it a completely different version of Equestria; this story does a fantastic job of showing how a single altered moment can spiral over years.
What's really fun here is the way the author uses the canon characters. The Ponyville crowd are still around and essentially the same, but even there discrepancies begin to crop up from the "start"--a result of the changes in the Everfree. Regardless, the characters are all quite recognizable, even as the situations they're in spiral out away from anything in the show; Trixie was an especially amusing case for me, and it was nice to see that she wasn't just thrust into "surrogate Twilight" role or written off entirely. It's clear the author has a strong grip on the canon personalities.
This makes the first two chapters an even bigger disappointment; in order to get to the story-driving change from canon, Celestia is painted in a very pragmatic, cold-blooded light, which makes a stark contrast to her later, more typically "faith-in-friendship" attitude and actions. The real issue that detracts from the early chapters (not just the first two), however, is the wildly swinging tone. The first few chapters give us an attempted infanticide, mental destruction, and more... before the story swings over to "Big Mac, Equestria's greatest stud," a theme to which the fic regrettably returns again and again. Taking a joke premise--that every mare in Equestria is hot for Mac--and throwing it into the middle of a very serious, dramatic story makes for some uncomfortable juxtapositions, and it's not the only misplaced attempt at humor.
The other repeated one comes in the form of footnotes, which--being unlinked and at the bottom of each chapter--are an absolute pain to read, and are basically impossible to get to, and then find your place again afterward, on an e-reader, to the point where I ended up reading the entire story on my computer, just so I could keep each chapter open in two tabs: one for reading, the other pre-scrolled to the footnotes. I would recommend ignoring them (despite the fact that there are, in fact, some great jokes down there)... except for the fact that they aren't used solely for ignorable asides. Although most of the footnotes are jokey, there are occasionally bits of plot-relevant storytelling down there. I realize I'm harping on this a bit, but the fact is that there's simply no convenient way to read this fic as-written, and that's not nothing.
Another note on the presentation is Georg's propensity for inserting images into the fic. These I generally found to be a mild distraction--stuff like a generic sunrise-from-space picture in the middle of a story does nothing for me--but I can't say they bothered me, either. A bigger issue for me was the huge number of stuttering, slurring, or irregularly-speaking characters. All of them have their voices written out phonetically, which varies from mildly annoying to barely readable (and this isn't even counting Zecora, whose verses are almost wholly devoid of any rhythm ("My respected elder, you are entirely right / I must be gone on this very night"). When two or three of these ponies have a conversation together, the effect is a bit like watching some enthusiastic but ill-advised theatre students trying to emote but falling back onto ridiculous stock accents instead.
Where the story fell flat in design, however, it shone in character interaction. To repeat myself, the appeal here is seeing familiar characters in not-quite-familiar situations, and the best parts of the story are seeing how Cadence and Shining deal with unexpected situations in the Everfree, or how Trixie deals with the pressure of being expected to exceed herself, or how Celestia (after the second chapter) confronts the conflicting desires to protect and trust in her subjects. Coupled with that is some excellent worldbuilding about the Everfree, the power of the Elements, a species I can't talk much about without spoilers, other than to say that the way Cadence interacts with them is brilliant, and this is a story that's chock-full of clever bits about the world of Equestria, and how the characters interact with it.
But even beyond that, there's a satisfying central story here, which essentially amounts to an alternate take on the S1 pilot, but gives both Twilight and several of its other characters satisfying and complete arcs. This could easily have been a near-retelling of those episodes, or a directionless slog, but neither happened. Instead, Monster is strong a the plot level, with engaging characters and setting to make that plot feel not just strong, but effective.
I was worried this story would be difficult to rate as I was reading, but it ended up being surprisingly easy. The way I figured it, I couldn't possibly rate it any higher considering the weak start and general pain it was to read, and I couldn't possibly rate it any lower based... okay, mostly based on how Cadence ended up, but on the characters and story concept in general.
Recommendation: This isn't a good choice for folks who do their reading on e-readers, or generally who don't want to deal with difficult reading in either design or construction. But those looking for a clever, original, and (past the setup) remarkably believable alternate take on how the return of Nightmare Moon might have gone should definitely check this out.
Next time: Tyrant, by PaulAsaran