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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.
★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
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