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Okay, my internet works again! In fact, it works significantly faster than it used to, supposedly; the new router claims to have more than doubled my download speed, but everything seems to be moving at about the same clip to me. Of course, that clip was already perfectly fast for my needs, so it's not like I'm complaining.
But now, the review you've all been waiting for! Click down below the break for my entirely-too lengthy thoughts on Chengar Qordath's The Life and Times of a Winning Pony.
Impressions before reading: ...And, just like each of the last three years, I forgot to do this part before I went on vacation and read the story. Okay, next year when it gets close to Chris-leaving time, y'all remind me I've got to do that. But here's an after-the-fact approximation of what I thought going in:
This is the most-requested story for me to review by a significant margin, and has been suggested both by fans and at least one person "really hoping [you'll] rip it to shreds." Well, I try not to do too much ripping on principal, but I've got high hopes for this going in in any event: the author wrote a Dresden Files crossover that I quite liked, and while there are a lot of people with negative opinions of the sprawling "Winningverse" which this fic and its related pieces have inspired, my past experience with -verses has been that the quality of the stories they spawn isn't a good predictor of the quality of the root stories themselves. On an unrelated note, I see that all but one of FiMFic's "users also liked" fics for Life and Times are other stories of the author's from the same setting... and that the one exception is a different author's Winningverse fic. Seems that there's a lot of reader retention across these related stories.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Cloud Kicker really likes sex. Hey, who doesn't? But it turns out that some ponies expect you to pick and choose when it comes to lovers, and Kicker isn't a one-pony kind of mare. Add to that some long-unresolved friendship drama, family tensions, and Equestria nearly ending once or twice, and she's in for a hectic couple of months.
Thoughts after reading: One of the big things I look for when I'm evaluating stories is what I describe as "crossover appeal:" the degree to which a story is likely to appeal to people who aren't necessarily fans of its genre, storytelling style, or whatever. To me, this is one of the things that defines great literature, never mind ponyfiction; highly-targeted works are common in every field of writing, from romance to fantasy to military fiction, but the stories that stand out in any of those fields (a favorite of mine from each of those categories: Sense and Sensibility, The Lord of the Rings, and All's Quiet on the Western Front) are those that appeal not just to those who preferentially read those genres, but to plenty of people who don't have an interest in stories of their general type. That's not to say that everyone will love a story with crossover appeal (you wouldn't exactly have to look hard to find detractors of any of the three novels I just named), just that the appeal can transcend genre or stylistic lines.
What I would describe Life and Times as is "relationship drama," but I've had some trouble placing how I feel about its crossover appeal. The thing is that--like most stories its length--this fanfic does a lot of things other than "relationship drama," and it does some of those things extremely well. But even with that said, I'm not sure that readers without any inherent interest in the fics prime focus will find enough payoff to mitigate how exhausting the rest of the story is.
Make no mistake, large parts of this story are exhausting to read. The majority of the fic consists of Kicker and one or more other ponies conversing, and most of those conversations are, well, relationship drama. Page after page, tens of thousands of words at a time (literally), of lovers and would-be lovers sniping, arguing, making demands, and just generally behaving in exactly the sorts of ways that inspire bystanders to awkwardly edge away, really wears on any reader who doesn't want to experience that. With that said, those arguments and negotiations are well-written on their own terms; they're simply highly targeted.
As for those "lot of other things" I mentioned, they come in a lot of varieties (surprise!). There's quite a bit of worldbuilding around pegasi culture, and specifically how it changed post-NMM, which I found endlessly fascinating (there appears to be at least one -verse story by the author specifically focusing on this aspect; if I read any other stories from this sprawl, that'd be the one I'd choose based on personal interest). There's also some interesting biology (no, not just that kind)--again, mostly involving pegasi. And the comedy's a repeated selling point. Mostly, it's the low-key variety that comes from Cloud Kicker poking a little fun via narration, but there's also occasional doses of slapstick and more traditional joke telling. It's worth noting that the comedy is very uneven, however; it's mostly concentrated in the first part of the fic.
My larger problems with the story revolve around the way that the non-relationship, non-sexual elements are used, however. Specifically, those elements are made wholly subsidiary to the relationship material, acting explicitly as framing for the events which drive the sexual drama. Early on in the fic, when the stakes being used are relatively low, this isn't too bothersome, but in the later story it becomes actively distasteful in places. A death in Cloud Kicker's family (it would be spoiler-y to be any more specific) is one of the dramatic foci of the middle story, and in context ought to be the main emotional crux of the fic entire... but within days (days!) of said death, it's being used exclusively as a means of prodding at Kicker's love triangle. In a letter to Celestia at the end--about two weeks after said death--Kicker writes "A lot of stuff happened. Some of it bad, some of it good, and all of it changed me. I’m not the same pony I was before all this. I’d like to think that, overall, the change has been for the better." I can't get over the fact that she suffered a loss she was absolutely not prepared for--and which subsequent events in the fic made even more emotionally scarring than it already was, which was already even more emotionally scarring than "death of this relative" would have been in a vacuum!--and a fortnight on, she's dismissing it as a learning experience. Sadly, this kind of dismissal is not an isolated incident by any means; Life and Times goes to some remarkably dark places, and although those places are generally handled well at the moment of presentation, the way they're casually tossed aside in favor of sex talk, and the way their psychological tolls are consistently shown to be all but insignificant compared to the emotional cost of dealing with the aforementioned triangle, rankles.
Now, the story is entirely told from Kicker's PoV, and there's certainly a case to be made that what we're seeing is her perspective, and that from her perspective (or at least, what she's able to process at the time and/or willing to admit to herself), those are the things which are important--and unimportant--to her. Indeed, Qordath does some nice things with character perspective throughout the fic, subtly and not-so-subtly showing us that Cloud Kicker isn't necessarily the most reliable of narrators. But unlike in other, more limited areas, this perspective as relates to the "big things" doesn't get broken or even challenged by the end: despite her assurances to the contrary, Kicker doesn't get a lot of growth in this story. She becomes much more settled, it's true; most of her major conflicts, both from before and during the story, are resolved before "the end" rolls around. But these resolutions mostly (and in the case of the prime conflict (the romance), entirely) take the form of other ponies electing to accommodate her needs and, more often, wants. And those lessons she ostensibly does learn never seem to stick: near the end of the fic, for example she comes to the realization that doing what she wants without worrying about what the ponies she loves wants is hurting them. Two chapters later, she's making out with another pony when she notices [third pony she loves] is uncomfortable watching them grope each other in public... and decides that's [third pony]'s problem. Even if one buys into Kicker's brand of sexual freedom and her theories on how love and sex ought to overlap, the net result is still a 350,000 word story where the protagonist's character arc is practically a flat line.
This story, in case you haven't gathered from what I've written so far, has lots and lots of sex. None of it's explicit; even the (fairly regular) makeing-out is written in a very low-detail, semi-comic manner which makes it palatable for even those with a strong aversion to ponies getting their groove on. There's also a fair amount of violence, including death, mutilation, and the like, though this is mostly in the last half of the fic. This, too, is handled with a very un-graphic touch, and is generally worked into the story well.
What it isn't worked into well is season two of FiM... which this story supposedly takes place during. In a story, things like Dash and Pinkie dating don't bother me much, at least when their romance is a secondary story element (AJ and Rarity ALSO dating(ish) pushed past my suspension of disbelief, though--two-thirds of the main six pairing up is a hard sell to non-shippers). But much like my issues with The Appledash Project, the fact that I'm supposed to buy their juxtaposition with the show itself is a hard sell. The violence actually threw me much worse than the sex, in that regard; the way Canterlot generally, and Shining Armor particularly, are depicted handling the aftermath of the changeling invasion (complete with significant civilian casualties, overflowing hospitals, etc.) doesn't exactly mesh well with "and then they had a storybook wedding 24 hours later and everyone partied like it was 1999." While I suppose it's to the story's credit that it didn't try to pretend that there was a month of recovery between invasion and (real) wedding in the episode, that doesn't make the tonal juxtaposition any less jarring.
The writing, much like the story itself, is fairly strong for what it is while not having a lot of appeal outside of its target demographic. Cloud Kicker's voicing is snarky and conversational, and has an easy flow to it. It's also so full of repetition, self-correction and -assurance (in places, it feels like every third sentence starts with "don't get me wrong," "needless to say," or the like), which I think a fair number of readers will find maddeningly grating. However, I thought the style a good fit for the story being told; the conversational tone creates a casual, almost personal atmosphere, and that atmosphere really helps create a space in which to care about these ponies who keep talking about their sex lives. It's also worth noting that the writing (and editing) improve noticeably as the story goes along; while the early chapters are a bit rough, the story quickly hits a groove, construction-wise.
★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
As I'm sure I've said before, rating long stories is hard. Life and Times has some frankly excellent stretches, and it also has portions that left me sorely disappointed--but then, that's going to be true of almost anything this lengthy. In the end, I found the story mostly tiring to read and occasionally actually upsetting, but between the engaging (if sometimes irritating) narration, the regular nuggets of interest to me, and an awareness that I was not in any way the target reader, two stars feels right.
Recommendation: Look, if "relationship drama" is something that appeals to you in fiction, you should absolutely read this. Even if you like relationship drama but worry that 350,000 words of it is way too much, I suspect the amount of variety here will keep you engaged. But if you're not here for ponies engaging in romantic sniping, or if you're looking for something that holds up well in its thematic and construction conceits, this probably isn't for you.
Next time: The Price of Grace, by Sparkle