Friday, March 25, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 157: The Witch of the Everfree

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

I realized yesterday that I'd let my short list--the list of the next few stories I plan to review as Fandom Classics (find it under the "Fandom Classics" link at the top of the page, if you want to keep tabs on what's coming up!)--dwindle to almost nothing.  So, I went ahead and populated it with another dozen or so titles.  Two notes on that: first, your semi-annual reminder that I'm always happy to accept reading suggestions.  Stories of any length are welcome, but shorter ones are easier to schedule, so they tend to get on the list quite a bit quicker.

Second, I've got an over-200,000 word fic coming up, and while I've tried to schedule it to coincide with my spring break, early April-ish would be a great time to be able to post a guest column or two, if you've got something ponyfic related you've been hankering to share via another person's fanfic review blog.  Just sayin'...

But enough about epic-length stories of the future!  For now, let's focus on the merely novel-length stories of today.  My review of MagnetBolt's The Witch of the Everfree, below.

NOTE: Because I can't figure out how to put multiple spoiler tags in the text without one overwriting the other's text, the rating today is unspoilered. Just a heads-up, if you're one of those "don't want to see it until I've finished reading the review" folks.
Impressions before reading:  One one hand, I'm not a big fan of EqG as a concept, so I'm always a little leery of stories about Sunset Shimmer.  On the other hand, the entire premise of this story is basically "What if Sunset never went to the EqG world?" which would seem to obviate my concern.  On the subject of that premise, this also seems to be the kind of AU fic I'm most partial to out of that genre: the "change one thing and show the ripple effect from a single alteration" type.  So, even though this is the type of fic I would probably skip over for my casual reading, I have pretty high hopes for this story.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After Sunset Shimmer and Celestia have a falling-out over Sunset's studying dark magic, her flight leads her to the only place in Equestria she's sure Celestia can't track her--the Everfree Forest.  There, she begins a new life... as the titular Witch.

Thoughts after reading:  In a story told from a first-person perspective, it's of vital importance that the narrator have a clear, distinct, and consistent voice.  After all, the whole purpose of first-person narration is to give the reader a closer, more intimate look at that characters PoV; the voice, word choice, moments the narrator lingers over and ones she breezes past, and so on, all should combine to help inform who that character is.  And beyond that, it should remain consistent in its approach--which is easy enough with stuff like "don't include information that the narrator doesn't or couldn't know" (though even this gets abused in many stories), but also extends to less obvious details like making sure that worldview is reflected in descriptions, or that the actions of other characters are interpreted through the veil of the narrator's impression and preconceptions.

Using the first-person approach, in other words, gives an author a lot of chances to screw up that don't present themselves (at least, to as great a degree) in third-person.  But when first-person is used effectively, it can help create greater empathy with the narrator, and can be used in ways that make a story engaging and immersive.  And where The Witch of the Everfree consistently shines is in using Sunset's PoV to good effect.

For all of the action in it (Sunset's default response to basically anything being "overwhelming force"), this story is first and foremost about Sunset's growth as a character, and that growth is easy to detect in the story as it progresses.  What I really enjoyed was how the way Sunset's viewpoint on various matters gradually and organically changed, most obviously in how she thought about Princess Celestia and her reasons for kicking Sunset out of the castle.  It's not just that she eventually changes her mind about this or that--it's the way that her narration reinforces those changes, or presages them.  Similarly, her Harry Dresden-esque mix of quippiness and self-doubt-hidden-behind-raw-power made her an easy character to relate to, and cast her reflections on her own shortcomings in a more nuanced light than the typical villain redemption fic manages.

This is also a story that gets fairly dark and risque in places, including some graphic monster deaths and, among other things, way too much information about Dash's sexual activities.  The story sets up its tone fairly well from the start, making clear that this is a story where falling off a cliff into a river doesn't just mean your mane gets wet (for example...), but nonetheless, a couple of the more brutal/crass moments caught me off-guard.  On the other hand, those moments are generally effective and/or hilarious, and as I said, it's not like they come out of nowhere; likewise, they aren't an omnipresent fug over the entire fic.

I did have two fairly substantial issues with this story, both toward the end.  The first is easy enough to talk about, and I imagine will be fairly uncontroversial in any case: a big chunk of the ending takes the form of "S1E1, but with an extra pony!"  You know the type, if you've read many OC-centric stories; the FiM pilot is basically replayed scene-for-scene, except there's someone else there whose presence doesn't meaningfully alter the progression of events.  This was very disappointing to see, because the first 40,000 words of the story were so consistently original and able to use canon characters and story elements in clever and believable ways.  Thankfully, the wholesale show-quoting only lasts a little more than one chapter.

My other issue is, unfortunately, rather more spoiler-y.  I'll put it under the tag if you don't mind basically knowing how the story ends, but up here I'll just say that I felt that one important lesson never seemed to be learned, and that in the context of the rest of the story, this felt like a flaw to me.

Again, though, that wasn't a fic-ruining problem for me; Sunset's growth and development are the real draw on that front, and a secondary arc failing to resolve is annoying, but hardly the worst thing possible.  And meanwhile, there's plenty of secondary draws here, from the frequent action to the entertaining magibabble (used sparingly, and only in places where it's individually interesting and makes sense for the characters to be discussing--my favorite kind) to the fast-paced and energetic action sequences.  This is the kind of story that holds up well to a variety of readers' tastes, I think.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

I've been hitting good stories at a high clip, lately.  This is fun!  I like giving out high ratings!

Still looking for the next elusive five-star fic, though.  If the last couple of chapters hadn't left me cool in a couple of important ways, this one might have had a shot, but hey; I'm not going to complain about having read a story that I thought was "well written, interesting, and engaging."

Recommendation:  For fans of the "what if?" school of AU fiction, this is an easy story to recommend.  But even beyond its "natural" audience, this is a story I would suggest to readers who enjoy strong, compelling, and (even in the story's darker or more serious moments) entertaining narration, and who can appreciate stories which seamlessly blend snark and drama.

Next time:  Pinkie Pie Is An Eldrich Abomination, by PonyAmorous


  1. Sounds like a (near) perfect fic for me! I don't know why it hadn't shown up on my radar. Thanks, Chris.

  2. Oddly enough, this is already on my RIL, but I somehow forgot about it. Weird.

  3. I read this as it was updating and the biggest issue was that for the early chapters, I wasn't sure where the story was going. But, once the filly six start popping up, I had a better grasp of the overall plot and started enjoying it a lot more.

    Plus, I'm a sucker for alternate universe stories, so it grabbed my attention from the start. I'm glad I stuck with it because it hit all my personal likes.