Friday, April 1, 2016

Fan Un-Classics Part 1: Alicorn

In case you're wondering what's up here, check the date.  April Fool's pranks are generally pretty dumb, but I reckon simple silliness is another matter.

I've been doing those Fandom Classics posts for a while, now--number 158 just went up on Wednesday, and that's not even counting all the structurally identical 6-Star Reviews I did before that--and I figure it's time to change things up a bit.  So, what's the opposite of a well-known, generally well-regarded story?  Why, a story that literally nobody has ever read!

Well, wouldn't you know it, I happen to know of such a story... a story with an audience of zero.  An un-story, if you will.  So sit back and buckle your seatbelts, because today, we're reviewing Alicorn, by A Timewarped Dinosaur.

Impressions before reading:  ATD has never really been on my radar as an author, since (to the best of my knowledge), he isn't active on any FiMFic, hasn't published any stories (including this one), and is also a name I just made up.  But that's exactly the kind of author I would expect to produce a Fan Un-Classic, and so, he seems like an ideal candidate for this kind of review.  As for the story itself, it appears to be about an alicorn--that coverart is just to throw you off the scent, I guess.  It also consists of seven "books" of increasing length, totaling a bit less than 500,000 words.  That's... that's a lot to read without interrupting my M-W-F posting schedule.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Halafax is a powerful alicorn, a great leader cast down and afflicted with a powerful curse.  In order to save himself and his lands, he must travel through the seals to the land of Equestria, collecting the legendary Elements of Harmony, and then return.

Thoughts after reading:  How do you sum up a novel cycle of half a million words?  How do you briefly encapsulate all the myriad events, the countless minor characters, the innumerable asides, jokes, and powerful bits of lore and mythmaking?  How do you succinctly describe to a reader a plot that defies succinct description?

I have no idea, but luckily, that's not my job.  I'm sure you can figure out the plot for yourself; I'm just here to enumerate my thoughts about the story.

Alicorn is, despite its title and summary, not really about Halafax--at least, not in the sense that a lot of alicorn OC stories are about their OC.  Instead, this is a thorough and complete piece of multiple-worlds-building, using the Hero's Journey (google Joseph Campbell, if you don't remember exactly what that means) as a template from which to build a nesting series of lands, each walled from one another by a magical force, though which Halafax must travel to reach the Two Sisters.  These lands are often engaging characters in themselves, and this is especially true of the jungle in which Book 2 takes place: a vibrant land full of familiar but uniquely adapted plant and animal life, and a place which allows the author to simultaneously explore the details of tropical survivalism and to develop via Halafax one of the six Elements needed to move on through the next barrier.  The changing settings also keep the story from getting too repetitive; the first few books are all basically variations on "get the Elements," yet the wildly different locales (and locals) in each place, each with their own design, full of characters with their own wants and needs, keeps the story from being buried under the weight of repetition.

On the subject of exploring the elements, I'm pleased to report that ATD doesn't play these too straight; it's not as dull as "Halafax spends 50,000 words learning that lying is bad, and then gets the Element of Honesty."  Instead, such growth is often left completely unstated, the nature of each Element something to be inferred from the chapter rather than a mallet with which to whack one over the head.

The final two books, however, are a completely different ballgame.  Between them, they represent about half of the fic's length, and detail Halafax's coming to Equestria, and subsequent return home.  I found the last chapter a bit disappointing in one regard: a large part of it ends up being a rescue mission, which robs the character being rescued of a lot of the agency shown in the story previously.  However, I felt that the actual ending was both thematically exactly appropriate (the hero returns bearing his gift, but is required to sacrifice what he has gained for the benefit of his people--I don't think that's too much of a spoiler, considering the nature of the story), and mixed action and drama in equal measure.  And in any case, the epilogue-ish conclusion (attributed as an "Unabridged excerpt from “The Mare in the Moon” via The Secret History of Equestria, Vol. 23 (Author Unknown)) gives the whole piece a patina of in-universe history, which is an admitted soft spot of mine.

Another issue I had was some of the romance.  Halafax falls in love several times throughout the story (not including those occasions where love is played for laughs), and while there's nothing wrong with that inherently (500,000 words is plenty of time for more than one romance, after all), I think it does end up detracting somewhat from how the mare he's with in the final two chapters is portrayed in such an unambiguous "one true love" fashion.  The absoluteness of their mutual adoration might be an easier sell, had we not seen similar motifs with other mares (well, one in particular) earlier in the story.  Others may see this as thematic development (just as he grows during his journey, so does his understanding of and capacity for love), but to me, it made the final romance seem a bit less unqualified than I'd prefer.

The unquestioned strength of the story, however, has to be the dialogue.  ATD shows a real knack for mixing character development with just a pinch of humor, even in perfectly serious situations, without breaking mood.  Take this exchange from book 3, where Halafax speaks to Inciter, a pony who claims to represent the will of the Two Sisters (who, being several barriers on, are but a distant memory):
     “How did you become a high priest?”
     “Oh, it is merely a title, My Lord,” replied Inciter with mock-humility as we walked down a long hall leading to a pair of large double doors. “I have always loved The Sisters with all my heart, and as I grew older I did my best to share my love with others. I would give sermons in their temple daily, and eventually my devotion was noticed. When our late leader passed away it was I who was called upon to lead us, and high priest was how I came to be known. I do not let such things go to my head, however, for I know that I am as dirt under The Sister’s hooves.” When we reached the doors, Inciter opened them with a flourish, ushering me through.
     As I entered Inciter’s room I looked around. “Dirt does not have silk blankets,” I replied.
     Inciter bowed. “Thank you, My Lord. Your compliment is most gratifying.”
That last line, in particular, made me smile... but it also told me more about Inciter than his entire previous paragraph (still a fine paragraph, in that it did tell me something, and was necessary to set up the line, but... well, you can read, you see what I mean).  Throughout the story, whether their speaking of the past, their beliefs and traditions, or of military matters and combat strategies, the dialogue in this story is a pleasure.

On a related note, characterization is very strong throughout.  Relatively minor characters like Inciter are too numerous to name, yet almost everyone Halafax meets has a distinct personality, and clearly recognizable goals and ideals.  Ironically, this sometimes make Halafax (as well as Luna and, to a lesser extent, Celestia, seeing as they both play especially large parts in the fic) seem a bit shallow by comparison, though this isn't because the main characters are actually dull.  Rather, it's that their wants and needs get so thoroughly tussed out over the course of the story, while secondary ponies who only appear in one book demonstrate over and over that ATD doesn't need a fraction of a fraction of a percent so many words to create a vivid personality.

Star rating:  Since this is the first Fan Un-Classic review, I thought I'd adopt a new rating system.  And what better for that than re-purposing someone else's.  Thus, I'm pleased to give this fic:

Four Chres.
Recommendation:  Well, it's obviously not for anyone who doesn't like epic-length stories, classic narrative structures played straight (albeit with massive, detailed exploration), or a total inability to actually read said stories.  With that said, I would unhesitatingly recommend this to literally anyone else.


  1. Now you just have to make an account for ATD and write all seven books so we can read them. I realize that's a lot, so you have exactly one year

    1. A year is insane. What are you thinking?

      Chris, I apologise for this man and his insulting manner. You must forgive him. He knows not what he does. We all know you can do it in six months, my lord.

  2. I hear Allen Rickman is doing the audio version. I think I'll wait for that.

  3. "How do you succinctly describe to a reader a plot that defies succinct description?"

    I think I know.

    "Once upon a time there was an ugly alicorn. He was so ugly... that everypony died."

    For serious though, this was one of the most enjoyable stories I never read. That Halafax; what a card! I hope that ATD never writes anything else ever again.