Friday, September 4, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 123: The Price of Grace

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

Hey, it's Fandom Classic number 123!  I don't have anything to add to that, other than that 123 is fun to type.  123, 123, 123!  Your results may vary; I actually pick up my left hand and put the ring finger on the 1 to type numbers, rather than using the number pad or staying on the home row and beginning from my pinkie like your supposed to, and either of those methods are probably less satisfying.

But enough about typing idiosyncrasies; on to reviews!  My thoughts on Sparkle's The Price of Grace, below.

Impressions before reading:  I'm digging the description opening with a quote ("‘Have you ever,’ she started, ‘broken a promise you made?’"); it sets the tone nicely, and gets a reader's attention right from the get-go.  The story itself looks like a Celestia/Luna/Discord origin story (dated 2012, so not expecting much post-S2 compliance) starting from the former two's childhood; there are a lot of stories with that exact premise which are little more than lifeless exercises in filling in the blanks, but I have something of a fondness for Royal Sister origin stories which actually build up the Royal Sisters as characters, rather than just showing us "here's the stuff that has to happen to get to established canon."  Here's hoping for a good one!

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Celestia and Luna have an idyllic early childhood, safe in Canterlot Castle... but even from a young age, the troubles of the world beyond and of malicious forces within begin to impinge upon their awareness, and soon to demand their attention.  The Eternal Spring has lasted a long time, but anarchy, violence, and distrust are being freely sown.  Even the princesses are not immune.

Thoughts after reading:  The first chapter of this story is pretty bad.  Starting from the technical (mis-punctuation and misused words are common; spellcheck errors are also a recurring issue), and continuing to the stylistic (exposition is repeatedly forced into dialogue in ungainly and unnatural ways; bizarre saidisms ("swindled" as a speaking verb?  Really?) are frequent; the perspective wanders freely, at one moment following Celestia's PoV closely, at another drifting from her sleeping form to a clumsy bit of foreshadowing).  The plot, meanwhile, has some promising scenes, but the presentation of major story elements (I'm particularly thinking of the distrust between the Queen and the guards) is so simplistically presented that it's hard to take seriously, while the (inconsistent) high tone makes it clear that that's exactly what one's supposed to do.  All in all, not a great start.

Now, I've said more than a few times that I always read a story for review cover-to-cover, even if I'm not enjoying it, to make sure I give it a fair shake.  Generally, stories either stay the same in terms of my enjoyment, or improvements are marginal (and most often strictly in technical areas, like punctuation).  Every now and again, however, I find a story that vastly improves as one gets farther in.  I'm happy to report that The Price of Grace is, in fact, such a story.

The technical work does get better, to start with.  While misused words are a recurring issue, and lapses from the high vocabulary which this fic generally uses never really go away (at one point--in a single paragraph!--the narration gives us both "Only Sweetcorn's red, unblinking eyes lit through the luminous, translucent surface against the surrounding darkness," and "[The glass] just seemed to fall apart into tiniest shards, as though busted by pressure"), the other issues improve markedly well before the halfway point of this 80k work.  And when that "high vocabulary" is being used properly, it has an excellent effect, giving the story a diffuse, dreamlike quality that meshes perfectly with Celestia's emerging understanding of the world she inhabits, and the ponies around her.

And (although it's not always clear at the beginning) this is Celestia's story, in the end.  For most of the story, even (parts of) the early going, Sparkle demonstrates a knack for getting into the character's head, using repeated motifs (her mother's emphasis on grace, the guard's motto, Sweetcorn's theory on tendencies) and her reaction to/reflection on them to show both her thinking and her development.  Despite all the anarchy and violence which are both promised and delivered upon, this is ultimately more of a character piece set against a phantasmagorical backdrop which increasingly comes into focus as the story progresses, and that element works wonderfully.  The character interactions positively shine in enough places that it's hard to pick a favorite.

Still, this is a very unbalanced work, even beyond the obvious "it gets better" bit.  While those character interactions I mentioned create many highlights, the depictions of violence or rioting are mostly letdowns, falling back on stock imagery.  More disappointingly, the haziness of the storytelling itself--which was such a positive in other places--makes what should be crucial events seems indistinct, and pivotal moments fail to stand out.  On the plus side, the way those conflicts are used to define Celestia, Luna and their mother ultimately make all three very distinct individuals, and cast the ending as a true tragedy, and one where it's not hard to empathize (if, perhaps, not always sympathize) with each of them.

The story also ends, I should note, on a very down note--so obviously, well before we get to the Elements of Harmony or anything.  I appreciate that the story doesn't try too hard to get to that point, and the story is self-contained.  Still, it does ultimately feel like there's a missing story between this story and the show--and since that "missing story" has been on hiatus for two years, and the author appears to have left the fandom, don't expect that to change.

Star rating:

I really wanted to go to three on this... but then I went back and took another look at some of the early passages I highlighted.  This story has some breathtakingly gorgeous passages, and builds characters is delightfully open ways... but the story remains a very inconsistent work in terms of quality, from start to finish.

Recommendation:  This is an excellent choice for readers who are more interested in quality than consistency, but probably isn't for anyone who can't stomach weak beginnings or language issues.

Next time:  The Brony International Guard, by psychicscubadiver


  1. Psychicscubadiver? That's a weird name. I wonder how Psychicscubadiver came up with that.

    Also, while we're on the topic of origins, I too like origin stories. Ones about the sisters are fun because with how old they're implied to be, you can go all sorts of different ways with it! It's unfortunate to hear that in this case the telling of such a story ended up being so janky, but hey, if the author did the characterization well, there's hope for them yet to work on their shortcomings and bring them up to the same level. That is, of course, assuming they're still writing. You can never know when people disappear from off the face of the web.

    Also, also, what with all the talk of long stories on your blog this week, I'm curious. What do you think is the ideal length for a fanfic? I know it depends on the style, and the genre, and the blah blah, but ignore that. Assuming it's a good fanfic, what length of story would you be most inclined to pick up? For me, I like things that don't take up the majority of the day, but are long enough that I can still consider reading them an "activity." If I had to guess I would probably put the word count for my ideal fanfic somewhere between 20,000 to 50,000 words. It's interesting because with books I tend to prefer them to be much longer. A lot of the time if I like a book that's part of a series, I'll try to get them all at the same time and read them straight through. Did it with the Chronicles of Narnia, did it with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, did it with The Lost Years of Merlin back in middle school... yeah. I didn't really go out much. That's just me though, and I'm sure such preferences vary a lot from person to person. So what about you, Chris? And what about you, other OMPR commentors? Let's talk numbers for a change.

    1. psychicscubadiver had a recent feature in the RCL, where he answers your initial question! :)

    2. I had to Google what RCL* stood for, but I found it! Thanks, Present Perfect. The Monicker Mystery has been put to a close.

      *It stands for Royal Canterlot Library, in case anyone else is as oblivious as I was.

    3. 12k is ideal for oneshots, as that's exactly long enough to have a full story while developing the central concept, giving decent exposure to all characters involved, and wraping up the main plot and subplots in a way that does not feel rushed.

      Longer stories, I'm the same as you. 20-50K is enough to accomplish all the same things with an ongoing, multi-chapter story and a more complex plot. Unless it's an adventure story or the like with lots of characters involved and/or a lot going on, in which case, I look for stories of 200K words or more.

    4. For fanfics, I prefer something I can finish in one sitting. I've probably got more four-digit fics in my "Favourites" than fives, and the longest story on that list is under 150,000. With traditional books, I guess under 1,000 pages and probably no more than seven books in a series

  2. "I'm particularly thinking of the distrust between the Queen and the guards... her mother's emphasis on grace..."

    Ugh, so it's one of those stories. Pass

    1. I'm not following what "those" stories are in this situation. Ones where Celestia has a mom? Do mom stories have a bad reputation? Or are you referring to stores that have... grace in them? Queen grace? Queen mom grace? None of these words are throwing up any red flags for me.

    2. Not to presume to speak for Oats, but I think he's talking about stories in which Equestria has/had a King or Queen and the sisters inherited their power. In a story that assumes this scenario, there are one of two ways it can go:

      Scenario A: Celestia and Luna are still princesses in the present day because at least one of their parents are still alive. This is problematic because it clashes horribly with canon and suggests that Celestia and Luna aren't the proper rulers of their nation despite all evidence to the contrary. The fic will instead purport that either Equestria is actually ruled from the shadows by some unseen OC, and Celestia's peaceful rule was all their work; or else the sisters are prevented from taking the proper titles because of some deadbeat who's probably off having adventures in space with Star Swirl or something.

      Scenario B: The King/Queen eventually dies, probably in the course of the story, and the author will then be forced to contrive a reason why the situation is as it is in the show. In a line of royal succession that she was born into, Celestia should be the absolute monarch with the title of Queen. So why share power with her sister when they both know that it should be Celestia's throne, and if they're assuming power anyway, why refuse their proper titles?

      Any King/Queen origin story will have these issues. This origin creates problems that weren't there before that it then needs to solve. If the sisters were the first rulers of Equestria or took power after something broke the original line of succession, they get to set all their own rules, and can just choose to both be princesses for whatever reason. But if there was already a line of succession in place, then the author needs to dedicate pagetime to explaining why Celestia chose to screw with it, or else why the actual monarch isn't around.

      I guess the short answer is that a royal family origin tries to fix what isn't broke, and ironically, in the process, it breaks the story for some people.

    3. Maybe I'm being unfair, since I can't exactly read the author's mind, but it sounds like one of those fics that attempts to explain how Celestia's "only a princess"

    4. Ah, I was right on the money, I see!

    5. DannyJ: Official Translator of Professor Oats.

      I guess that's a good point. Contrived reasoning trying to explain the decisions of Hasbro's toy company seems like something that would be grating in most stories. That's probably why they never did it in the show! But seriously, I think a story about the royal sisters' deadbeat parent/parents gallivanting around in space while they have to watch over the kingdom would actually be pretty entertaining.

      "And sign here, and here, and... here."


      "And also here. And here."

      Celestia scribbled her signature on the final line of the final page of the drab diplomat's dossier. "Will that be all?" she asked in a strained tone. This had been going on for nearly an hour.

      "Actually, no. I'll be needing these in triplicate, so if you could schedule me in for the same time tomorrow that would be—"

      Suddenly a fireball came crashing through the stained glass skylight of the sisters' royal signing room, scattering the diplomat's papers everywhere in a veritable parchmentsplosion. Anything that wasn't thrown out of range when it landed immediately burst into flame.

      At first Celestia was startled, but it only took a moment for her to recognize the familiar sizzle of the fire; the ever so subtle muskiness of the smoke. As a form rose from the crater and stared down at her, she stared back flatly.

      "Princess," it said.

      Celestia grabbed a large pillow with her magic and used it to snuff out the panicked diplomat. "Dad."

      Looking around, the majestic alicorn in front of her took a moment to take in the scene. "Well," he said, "it seems like you're in the middle of something, so I'll try not to take up too much of your time." Leaning forward, he gave Celestia an intolerably shameless grin. "I need some money."

      Hahah. Yeah. That's got potential.

    6. They may not have ever done it in the show, but canon has given a princess origin story of its own (Journal of the Two Sisters, by Amy Keating Rogers). And sure enough, the canonical origin of the sisters was that they were chosen for the job by Star Swirl, Clover, Pansy, and Smart Cookie, because the tribes figured that a pair of alicorns would probably make for good impartial rulers.

      No word on why they're princesses instead of queens, though. I guess they just didn't want to be mistaken for a couple or something.

      And you should totally write that story. I'd read the hell out of that.

    7. Only the official writing crew could decide that magicking up two random Alicorns out of thin air made for a good explanation.

      It's amazing what they can get away with that we couldn't :P

    8. @DannyJ
      No! No write fanfic! Only read.

      Also maybe their title is actually an acronym, like... Personal... Religious Integration... Neon Collecting Eternal Surveillance Sibling. Or... Pre-Recorded Insurgent Neutralizing Combat Effective Survival System. Or maybe Pony Rides Is Now Cool Erryday Soul Sister. That makes more sense, right?

    9. Also Core Enforcement Leadership Enacting Senior Total Intelligence Agent and Legislative Unified Network Agent. I thought of those after I posted.

      Code name: CELESTIA
      Code name: LUNA

      They're two cyborgs that were built in the future, but accidentally got sent to the beginning of time! AND ALSO GOT AMNESIA. They'll have to work together if they want to get back home, or else take the long way by waiting it out.

      That's another fanfic I would read.

    10. @InquisitorM

      Oh, they didn't magic up two random alicorns. Apparently alicorns aren't unique beings, but an entire fourth race of ponies, or at least they were when the sisters were young. The book seems to imply that Canterlot was originally an alicorn community. So they didn't magically create two random alicorns. They chose two random alicorns from Alicornsville Much better explanation, isn't it?

      "These two will do. I like their colour schemes."

    11. @DannyJ

      Oh yeah, inventing a whole race that appears to contradict canon so that they can choose two of them is so much better. You're right.

    12. "But seriously, I think a story about the royal sisters' deadbeat parent/parents gallivanting around in space while they have to watch over the kingdom would actually be pretty entertaining."

      Sure, that could be interesting, and I'm not opposed to the idea of stories about their parents. Hell, I've read and enjoyed fics like that

      "No word on why they're princesses instead of queens, though."

      This is my problem. So many people assume Celestia and Luna must be heir apparents (no clue why feudatories are never considered). Sovereign princes are a thing, dammit! Hell, that's what the word originally meant

      They don't need to be queens, and their mom didn't have to be one either (nor did their dad need to be a king)

      "Apparently alicorns aren't unique beings, but an entire fourth race of ponies..."

      Please tell me you're joking and AKR didn't seriously open the doors to all those bad OCs (as if they even needed an invitation). What the Hell, Amy?

    13. Not joking. Alicorns can be born, they had their own community at one point which the tribes had at least heard of, they're naturally harmonious (and so presumably were never involved in that windigo business), and they have some kind of supernatural connection to cosmic bodies like the sun or moon. Unicorns burn magic in large quantities to move the sun, but alicorns somehow gain magic from it, which is part of the reason why the sisters are so powerful.

      Aging also works pretty weirdly for them. Longevity does appear to be a racial trait rather than something unique to the sisters, but I'm not sure if it's something that all alicorns have or if just born alicorns live that long. What I do know is that born alicorns take a long time to fully mature. At the time Celestia took the throne, she was older than Princess Platinum, and just about had the body of a normal adult pony, but she was still a blank-flank and spoke in a distinctively childlike fashion, despite assuring herself that she was mature.

      Makes you wonder why anybody thought it'd be a good idea to put them in charge of their new nation, but for however childish they both acted, they were surprisingly competent at their new jobs. I guess Star Swirl had prophetic powers or something. I mean, he had already invented time travel by then.

      Honestly, though, as stupid as I make it sound, I actually have no problem with the concept of alicorns being a rarely-seen fourth race. If nothing else, it explains why the Manehattanites, Daring Do, and loads of other ponies through season four didn't see Twilight the alicorn and immediately think "princess".

      I'll admit, I preferred my old headcanon about alicorns to this origin, and I'd wager that you two prefer yours as well, but it doesn't deeply offend me or anything. It's even inspired a fanfic idea or two.

    14. Nope. That's possibly the most poorly-contrived bollocks I've ever heard.

    15. Wow.
      This -->here<-- is the absence of a link to one of those snazzy head cannon accepted images.


      Thank you.


      Can I also take a moment to lament what Starswirl seems to be used as? When he was first mentioned in the show I thought he was a piece of "obscure unicorn history," but every time he's mentioned he seems to become more and more the most central, important unicorn to have existed. I don't mind that, and we often seem to need a historical spellcaster-unicorn, but every time he's referred to it makes the joke about Twilight having studied excessively enough to know about him weaker, and instead makes Spike seem more like a fool for not at least knowing the name.

    16. "but every time he's referred to it makes the joke about Twilight having studied excessively enough to know about him weaker, and instead makes Spike seem more like a fool for not at least knowing the name."

      This. I hate it when all they do is recycle that one name over and over again as it is, but I hadn't even considered thus point. Don't screw your own work through poor continuity and laziness.

    17. At least we have Meadowlark now.

    18. New historical figure mentioned in the season five premier, sharing a name with a pony from previous generations. Meadowlark was an "eastern unicorn" from long ago who apparently either discovered or invented a number of magical artefacts which have different effects.

      Starlight Glimmer in the episode falsely claimed that her staff was one of these artefacts, and that it was what gave her the power to equalise ponies. It wasn't, of course (the equalisation was actually a spell of her own invention), but Twilight's dialogue implies that Meadowlark himself and his artefacts were real.

      So there we go. A historically notable non-Star Swirl unicorn wizard.

    19. Is is bad that I want to use that, now?

      The hypocrisy is staggering :P

    20. Oh, please, use it. I really have not seen enough fics make use of Meadowlark.

  3. Chriiiis, you used the word 'story' five times in two sentences! D:

    1. Boy, I just ctrl-f'd "story" and got 37 results. Granted, half of those are in the comments, but it's still a big ol' wall of highlights on my scroll bar.