Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Guest Review: In a Tavern, Down by the River

Welcome to the first guest post of the vacation!  Don't worry, I'll still be around up above the breaks, and with a sentence or three at the end of the post (because lord knows I have to have the last word on everything).  But the content?  That's all outside material... and speaking of, let's get to some content!  Today's installment is brought to us by Icy Shake, someone who's been around this blog as a commenter, and has earned his chops editing for ponyfic authors.  No, nobody you've ever heard of, just no-names like Somber and The Descendant.  Today, he takes a shot at reviewing with an analysis of Lysis's In a Tavern, Down by the River.  Click down below the break to see what Icy has to say, and to find out whether this is the fic for you!


I’d like to start by thanking Chris for once again generously allowing me to post my scribblings at the venue he’s done so much to build and maintain these last few years. Clearly I didn’t leave the place trashed the last time around, so hopefully that bodes well and I’ll manage the same this time. But you never know.

I am proud to be a great magician! I have performed scores of dazzling tricks for thousands of ponies all across Equestria! Whole families flock to my stage to be amazed and gaze in awe at my magnificence! I am The Great and Powerful Trixie, famous in legend and song!”

I like to remind myself of these facts every so often, because the circumstances sometimes suggest otherwise.

So begins Lysis’s In a Tavern, Down by the River, a Trixie shipfic that was featured on Equestria Daily about a week before “The Magic Duel” aired, but which first hit FimFiction in June 2012, long enough before the episode for me to expect that the reference to working at the Pies’ rock farm was a later addition rather than based on previews or the like. The events take place a few months after “Boast Busters,” and primarily cover the aftermath of using Barrel, the barmaid and daughter of the owner of the inn Trixie has been staying at since arriving in Trottingham, in a ploy to catch an bleed dry a gambler who’s been cheating at cards there.

The cast is quite small, with even the cheater and Barrel’s father, Stock, having little more than bit parts. Almost all of the interaction is between Trixie and Barrel, so the success or failure of the story lies in large part with them, especially given the slice of life plotting. Here, Lysis has succeeded. Trixie is well realized and significantly expanded upon compared to her introduction in “Boast Busters.” At no point is she merely the overconfident braggart seen there, instead being portrayed from the start as both vain and self-centered, yes, but also charismatic, charming, and considerably more self-aware, as well as genuinely competent when it comes to her field of stage magic. Yet even early on, there are indications of cracks, as with her trouble sleeping:

The instant I’m in my room I dive right into bed, my mind whirling with plans and schemes and beautiful things. I fall right asleep without any of the usual tossing and turning, and dream wonderful dreams of the stage and the ponies who love me.

This side of Trixie becomes ever more prominent throughout the story as the contradictions in her desires for independence and preserving the best friendship she’s had in years build up. She’s a natural heartbreaker, but this time around she’s found one she wants to leave behind intact, and needs to figure out how.

For her part, Barrel is sweet, na├»ve, and eager to please. To misappropriate one of Trixie’s lines, “a nice, shy filly with a heart of gold … who’d never yell … who’d always make things right.” Increasing courage, tenacity, and perception round her out a bit over time under Trixie’s influence, but she certainly skirts the line of being a wish-fulfillment love interest, saved in my opinion by some of the flipped values some of them take in the context of being an unwanted love interest: fragility, clinginess, difficulty processing and coping with disappointment.

The plotting is well suited to the story being told. The first 1,700 words are dedicated to bringing the reader mostly up to speed, through Trixie’s internal narration, on what Trixie has been up to, how she differs from what we’ve seen on TV, and the original characters and setting. Then comes the hook, in the form of Trixie noticing the card shark and seeing it as a plan to get the money she needs to get back on the road. The act of catching him with Barrel’s help is both the action climax of the first chapter and the proximate cause for the main thread concerning the relationship between the two of them. I like that it was structured that way, as it has the effect of associating Barrel with the excitement of Trixie’s sting, jump-starting interest in her and their potential romance even as it justifies moving past the established square one of Trixie being a flirt and a tease generally, that the two are friends or close acquaintances after three months of Trixie living and performing in Barrel’s pub, and that Barrel is trying to hide her attraction to Trixie.

Things develop naturally but not smoothly from there, and the larger of the two major conflicts can comes naturally from Trixie’s character: she’s an independent vagabond who doesn’t want to be tied down and has so thoroughly compartmentalized the ideas of lover and friend where she is concerned that she spends a fair portion of the story in denial about Barrel’s intentions as a protective measure.

That said, the subsidiary conflict is a misunderstanding based on the two failing to talk to each other about a plot-relevant detail, without which omission the story might have gone very differently. This is, of course, something shared with many episodes of Friendship is Magic, including something like a fifth of Season One, and such greats as “Green Isn’t Your Color” and “Suite and Elite.” (Twilight might have made great use of a form letter: “Dear Princess Celestia, Many troubles may be avoided if you simply talk about your problems with the relevant people. It will usually make solving them easier, and sometimes you’ll even find there wasn’t really a problem at all! Your Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle”) But that plot line comes in two basic forms, or at any rate in a spectrum between two extremes, one generally more desirable than the other. At the first, it is overcoming the barriers that prevent the needed conversation from taking place that forms the real conflict. “Green Isn’t Your Color” does this by making it a secret intended to protect the feelings of the opposite parties; “Sleepless in Ponyville” goes a different route, by having the underlying fear of shaming herself before Rainbow Dash by admitting she was scared by the campfire stories leaving her trapped unable to ask for a change. At the second extreme, instead something just never gets said, for reasons not inherent to the situation (or at any rate the main conflict), sometimes despite there being ample opportunity and no particular reason not to be brought up. “Swarm of the Century” hits close to that point in that the entire episode could have been avoided at multiple points if Pinkie had bothered sharing information like oh, I’m reacting because these things result in infestation, fast or “I need a trombone because…” Likewise, in “The Mysterious Mare Do Well,” the rest of the Mane Six never try asking Rainbow to tone her self-aggrandizement down and stay focused while doing her heroics because for essentially no reason. In the case of Tavern, it’s closer to the latter end of the spectrum, as the misunderstanding is maintained by things like Barrel being less aggressive at one point than she had been at others, Trixie making one arbitrary choice in a conversation rather than another which would have allowed a segue for Barrel, and, most directly, (spoiler [highlight to view  -Chris]: Barrel just not including the and that’s how I discovered my special talent was X part of her cutie mark story). It’s a relatively minor contrivance as far as things go, but might rub some readers the wrong way. On the plus side, especially on a reread you can see places where indications of the truth were peeking through, their significance missed by Trixie who didn’t know to look and probably wouldn’t readily question her assumptions in any case.

Lysis also establishes the setting well, both in the tavern itself and Trottingham and Equestria more broadly. But more than setting atmosphere, the setting and worldbuilding were often used to develop or accentuate the characters and actions taking place, as with

I float my dinner over and begin to chow down, still not having moved off the bed. The soup is wondrously good, with bits of bread and lots of melted cheese to complement the bite of the onions. I make sure not to stain the linen.

Barrel shrugs and starts to eat her share, making loud slurping noises as she tips the bowl into her mouth. Poor dear, it would be so much more dignified if she had a horn.

where the differences in how they eat reflect the way each is handling the conversation, with Trixie trying to maintain distance and tact while earth pony Barrel wants more from Trixie—more willingness to let Barrel help her, more intimacy generally—and is less concerned with how she appears.

On the whole I found the writing itself solid, with the key points being Trixie’s voicing—considering probably half or more of the story is her narration, that she’s engaging to read is immensely helpful—and the way the prose’s mood changes with the events in the story and the narrator’s state of mind. There were some points here that I thought less welcome, such as Trixie often calling Barrel “dear,” which I thought strayed a bit too far from the show’s diction to feel natural, but there was only one choice which I had a major problem with: “Pony Hell.” I’m fine with the concept of a pony hell, but I don’t think calling anything “pony hell” or using it in place of the interjection “hell” is at all appropriate outside of a satire, trollfic, or some kind of random comedy unless you’re doing worldbuilding to establish separate afterlives for the various species, and even then it’s a dumb name. I suppose it simply sounds too much like a joke. It didn’t belong in this story, and stick stuck out badly. Editing wasn’t pristine, but the mistakes never particularly hindered comprehension. A large portion of them were cases where quotation marks or apostrophes hadn’t been converted to directional marks, while most were, but there were other, more serious problems from time to time, primarily including inconsistent capitalization (mostly of things like “mom,” “dad,” or “daddy” when not the object of a possessive) or incorrect pluralization (mostly involving forms of “pegasus”).

Otherwise, who wouldn’t like this? Well, the tone is unsurprisingly different from show-normal, and anyone who takes significant issue with things like alcohol, gambling, or prostitution existing in Equestria (the last of which appeared only as a slip of the tongue on Trixie’s part, “I don’t think a stage can replicate the feeling of turn- er, doing tricks on the sidewalk”) will probably be sufficiently warned away by the title, and of course those with no taste for shipping would do well to stay away. Along the way, both Trixie and Barrel hit some points that could easily be categorized as creepy, maybe worse in Trixie’s case. Besides that, anyone wanting much in terms of action besides people talking and thinking will probably be left unsatisfied apart from bits of the first and third chapters (and shopping in the middle one!); likewise, you need a pretty high tolerance for anxiety, indecision, and general angst.

Given those caveats, I’d be comfortable recommending Tavern to just about anyone, but especially fans of Trixie, shipping, and character studies. 


Thanks for the review, Icy Shake!  I'm with you that "Pony Hell" is a little too on-the-nose, even for a race which names its cities things like "Canterlot" and "Manehattan" unironically--but the uncontrived way the story handled its romantic elements was more than enough to win those points back from me.  If "Trixie, shipping, and character studies" sounds like your sort of thing, go check this one out!


  1. ...Rrrright! Thanks for the warning, Icy Shake. From this review I believe I gathered enough to know that if I ever run across a tavern down by the river, I should just keep walking.

    Also sorry about your ineffective spoiler, which at first was black with gray letters inside, but which has, as of now, turned white with white letters inside it, except for the last letter, which is still surrounded by black. It seems the omnipresent hand of Chris is still here, ever fumbling with the touch screen of its phone. It happens to the best of us. Will it change again before the end? Only he can say. Blessed be.

  2. "...even for a race which names its cities things like "Canterlot" and "Manehattan" unironically..."

    And in the spirit of that great tradition, I feel that pony hell (assuming they have one other than Tartarus) should be called Hack

    1. But is Tartarus even an afterlife in this context? As far as I'm aware, it's a place for the living.

      Now you've got me thinking of a pony "Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light," even if he doesn't handle an actual afterlife either.

    2. Ooh, are we discussing pony afterlife down here? Hold on, let me get my lecturing microphone. You boys get comfortable; we'll be here a while.

    3. *Drags in a beanbag chair, a clipboard, and a quill*

      Ok, comfortable. Lets hear it.

  3. This was one of the first stories I gave a really in-depth review to and followed it through revisions. The author can be very sensitive to criticism, though not dismissive of it, so it was't an issue of talking to a brick wall. Though it does mean I had to approach things carefully and slowly, and choose my words very carefully when explaining. There were a lot of little cosmetic changes to affect the tone of things, and for the most part, Lysis was pleased with those when he thought through how they were presented. I don't want to take undue credit for it, though—the author was definitely the one responsible for making it what it was. The only two semi-major things I think I helped much with were in making sure the transition in perspective for the last scene worked and in making sure that Barrel came across as a more realistic, believable character. The first draft was bordering on Mary Sue, but Lysis did a nice job of adding elements to tone that back. It's definitely a story I'd recommend.

    1. I can certainly see how some outside input could have done that with respect to Barrel. As I said, even now she's at least close to wish-fulfillment territory (now I'll expand on what I actually said then), especially on the basis of building so much around fixing the exact problems Trixie has. Even in general though, her talent will tend to suggest any relationship she's in, unless the other member is by temperament always happy, somewhat asymmetrical, with her supporting her partner and generally being the more giving member. That's fine, and it's not like that sort of thing isn't ever going to happen with real people, but it plays into the wish-fulfillment angle.

  4. I distinctly remember reading this one! If memory serves me, I remember feeling that Trixie's character progression was well handled, but that the main "pairing" lacked chemistry, which made the romance aspecy whoosh over my head.

  5. First of all, thanks very much for the review and the criticism. It's honestly a big surprise that people are still reading Tavern after all this time. I'm honored!

    You're correct that "pony hell" is wildly out of place and shouldn't have been there. You're also correct the story wouldn't exist if the characters had only been a bit clearer with each other about the small details. Blame it on me for being an immature writer.

    You can also blame my need to make Barrel a love interest on my immaturity. If I were to write it today and still keep the misunderstandings that cause the drama, I'd probably shoot for making Barrel out to be a "soul mate" kind of character, instead of a love interest. If there was to be romance, they'd need to spend far more time together in ways that wouldn't fit inside this kind of story. In other words, I'd need to write another story to develop them to that point. It would have been enough for Trixie to realize that she'd finally made a friend she could not lose or abandon under any circumstances.

    My talk of redoing the story aside, I did redo the first chapter sometime last year, and I've been meaning to rewrite the next two chapters and split it up into six chapters instead of three big ones. I haven't gotten around to it yet. Maybe we'll call that hypothetical six-chapter version the 'true' version? In any case, this story is still my longest published work, and it continues to teach me how to be a better writer even to this day. What more could I ask for?