Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 122: The Life and Times of a Winning Pony

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

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.

Star rating:

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


  1. You missed an "o" in "choose". First in the zerio-ish spoiler summary, and again when talking about worldbuilding

    "... the stories that stand out in any of those fields 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."

    Funny you should include The Lord of the Rings as an example, seeing as its early reception was fairly mixed — as I'm sure you're well aware. Quite a few fantasy fans didn't care for it (Anderson's The Broken Sword coming out the same year certainly didn't help)

    Speaking of LotR, I've been debating whether or not to finish Besides the Will of Evil. Aside from my not being a fan of the former work, Jetfire's stolen a little too liberally from Tolkien for my taste. I mean, he straight-up used the name Gil-galad, and some of the deer speak a mix of Quenya and Sindarin! It really pulls me out of the story. Can't say I'm a huge fan of the Gifts, either. They kinda bugged me in Dangerous Business, too. I picked a bad time to start a longfic, too, seeing as I don't have as much time for reading now

    1. Two weeks off, and I forget how to proofread my posts! Thanks for the catch(s).

      The reason I chose those three books to name from my favorites of their genres isn't just because I'm contractually obligated to remind everyone that I love LotR every few weeks; all three novels received very mixed reviews at publication. Since my point was that people outside the target could, rather than would love a story with strong crossover appeal, I thought it best that my examples be stories that plenty of people (at least, at the time of publication) were not enamored with, so that my point wouldn't get muddied to "it's only a great story if everyone loves it."

  2. The review we've all been waiting for! And I'd say it's pretty accurate to my own opinions.

    Don't get me wrong (c wat i did thar?), I liked the story as I read it, because I actually was interested in the relationship drama and the like, but this review still sums up my general opinion pretty well. The comments about the repetitive writing and Cloud's character arc especially ring true, although I admit that I never really thought about the implications of how the death of that relative was treated. Chalk that up to me never experiencing a similar loss, I suppose.

    Still, overall, I'd rate it a little higher by Chris's star system: "minor problems with this story, but it is still unquestionably a high-quality work," sounds like how I'd describe Winning Pony. But that's a difference in personal taste there. I certainly don't believe that it deserves the vocal hatedom it sometimes gets. It's hardly fair to hold the original story responsible for having terrible side-stories by other authors.

    Although, that said, even Chengar's own side-stories aren't always all that amazing. Some are unnecessary, some are boring, and one in particular is really confusing. The main draw of them is that they offer other perspectives than Cloud's, and I think that that's the appeal of Winningverse side-stories in general, after the main story is an uninterrupted 350K words of Cloud Kicker. Still, even to people who actually are interested in the larger Winningverse, I'd only recommend a few of them. Sturgeon's Law applies here, like it applies everywhere esle on the internet.

  3. You couldn't make this one easy, could you? :B

    1. You would expect that to be trivial, considering how easy Cloud Kicker is.

  4. I've tried to read this story several times, but I just can't get past the opening chapters. The dialogue just doesn't feel natural to me, and it doesn't help that I'm not particularly interested in the general thrust of the story.

    The overall feeling that I got is the same one that I used to have when I worked on films. When you're working on low-to-no budget movies, you see a lot of actors that are from local drama departments. They are used to stage work, but they are looking for experience, new skills, etc. My issue is that they often deliver their lines as though they are standing on stage. Their dialogue has this canned, "I've memorized this and I'm waiting for my turn to talk" feel to it. I get that same feeling from the dialogue in the opening chapters of this story. It feels like characters delivering lines to me than naturally occurring dialogue.

    It might just have to do with my general disinterest, though. That story is very popular, so it must connect a lot more with people that are interested in sexy shenanigans and the social drama it creates.

  5. I think this was the last of the Extremely Popular Stories on my to-be-read list, and now I can take it off. I could have dealt with all of the quirks you described, except for the ten thousand word stretches of relationship-foo dialogue. I often have my kindle read stories to me as I commute, and the risk of being put to sleep while driving is just too high.

    1. Well there's an audio book related danger that never occurred to me before.

  6. This is an odd review for me to read, because up until now I've never even heard of this story before, or at least not in any regard that would make me remember it. I mean, I assume that it was the story Chris mentioned in the last post, but who remembers words that happened two days ago? I don't.

    That being the case, I'm coming at this from a completely uninformed angle, and my first impression is... whaaaat? This is popular? Why does it say, "a winning pony," in the title? Is it like, a satire of that one druggie actor guy? What's his... ah, Charlie Sheen. That was it. From Chris's review it sounds like it might be, assuming the main character gets addicted to drugs at some point, but that still doesn't explain why it's that.

    Also why does the protagonist write a letter to Celestia at the end of it? That seems out of place. Twilight did it because she was Celestia's self-proclaimed student and number one fan, and the other main characters of the show did it later because I think Celestia told them to or something (it's been way more than two days since I watched those episodes. I'm just going by feeling here). If there isn't an explanation for it, then that seems really weird—especially since this sounds about as far from an episode-style story as there could be. Honestly, the fact that it's supposed to take place in season 2 and involves the main characters seems more like lazy association for recognition than something necessary for the story's construction.

    All in all nothing about this story sounds appealing to me. Hundreds of pages of superficial relationship arguments, narcissistic disregard for other people's well-being, disrespect for real life tragedies in order to move a plot along that ends with the narrator learning nothing anyway, and we're supposed to be rooting for this character? Hopefully I'm missing some key redeeming piece of information here, but even then, it would have to be something major. You can't just let stuff like that slide! That's not winning! That's not winning at all.

    1. I can answer a few of these questions.

      Chris doesn't say in this review, but this story is actually a spin-off/sequel to a oneshot Pinkie/Dash romcom in which Cloud was only a minor character. Cloud's character in that story was indeed originally a massive Charlie Sheen reference, hence the title. No drug use, though. The joke was more about Sheen's memorable quotes than his actual personal life.

      Cloud writes to Celestia as part of her penance. She technically deserted from the Equestrian military when she was younger and has been avoiding the consequences ever since because of her family's military connections. At the end of the story, she decides to finally face the music, declining an offer from Celestia to legitimately wipe the record clean after she helped defend Canterlot from the changelings. But Celestia won't hear of it, and so compromises by making her pay some heavy fines and write the letter.

      The story's connections to canon are actually vital. Cloud is a background pony, and her most notable role in canon was in Hurricane Fluttershy. The author invented her personality, but that episode was the basis of much of her relationships. For one thing, she knows Dash because that episode established that she's part of a weather team, and one of her other best friends is another background pony who was also in that episode. Without tying into it directly, Cloud would've just seemed like a clumsily-inserted OC, whereas with the tie-in, her presence makes sense and is justified in the larger MLP universe.

      Although, that said, Cloud Kicker's importance to that universe is way overblown.

    2. Ah. Well now I know. Hooray for context. Thanks, DananaJ!

    3. DannyJ: official translator of OMPR!

    4. I understand and accept the responsibilities that my new position entails, and I thank you for it.

  7. I liked most of the bits of this story that weren't massive stretches of ponies arguing about relationships, semi-making up, arguing again, rinse and repeat. Which is why I felt I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been 100,000 words shorter. Surprisingly (to me), the Mane Six shipping didn't really bother me, which is odd as I don't usually like it.

    My other irritations were mostly stylistic, such as Cloud Kicker referring to Rainbow Dash as "the boss" almost every time she mentions her, at least in the early chapters. As for the violence, I found a certain chapter quite early on (yes, that one) hard to take, but it just about stayed on the right side of the line that separates "shocking and memorable" from "oh come on, this is just ridiculously over the top".

    Now I come to think about it, I liked the bits of this story that were about relationships -- especially as I liked the way Derpy and those around her were portrayed -- but not those that were about relationship drama. As the latter takes up so much of the fic, that's probably why I could only give it a qualified recommendation.

  8. (Spoilers Ahoy!)

    While I can say I did enjoy Life and Times quite a bit, the way the fic uses terrible incidents in order to let Kicker vent about her feelings annoyed me endlessly. It was just so transparent and unsubtle, as well as straight up weird. The worst offender for me was the whole thing with the Shadow Armor, which wound up being just an excuse for her to talk about her feelings with a distant ancestor – and, I guess, provide a convenient excuse for her to do the same with Celestia. I almost quit the fic in disgust at that point, despite the fact that I actually enjoyed the relationship drama angle, since the story never seemed to pretend that Kicker's actions were actually good.

    Still, I just don't get the hatedom for this one. Anyone that actually hates it, and not just thinks that it is overhyped/boring/etc. would mind giving me some insight about that?

  9. I agree with you on the relationship drama. It got me so aggravated that I had to read 17,000 words a chapter about all this terrible relationship business that just seemed to go in circles that I quit.

    Then, way later, Qordath posted that it had finally finished. So I ended up starting it again, thinking that maybe with a real end in sight I would be able to stomach the triangle better. It's funny, right where I must have stopped reading is exactly where it started picking back up for me. I really enjoyed the drama as it related to the family and legacy stuff. I loved how the ending ended in a polyamorous relationship, that, despite how open Kicker was to the different species and sexes, still managed to be comprised of all pegasus mares. That cracked me up.

    I'm really glad to have seen your opinion on this fic, Chris. I hope that when it finishes, you'll add The Lunar Rebellion to your ever-growing list. In my opinion, it's better than Winning Pony in some regards (almost 0, like 10 percent romance tops in the whole thing).

  10. I think I can largely echo the opinions above, but to them I would add that this fic started out as a light comedy, and then somewhere along the way someone pulled the Drama Tag. As a light comedy that went on for a few chapters it would have worked. As a drama fic it... well, it just kept going and going and going round and round and round in ever-widening circles of angst and argument, with occasional moments of introspection that were invariably thrown to the wayside for the next big argument.