Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 161: Upheaval: Breaking Point

To read the story, click the image or follow this link.
I remember that cover well--back when this story was being written, the author published chapters at a quick clip, and with 48 chapters, "Twilight stares at you" got used as an EqD cover image a lot.  Now, it's finally time to see what lay behind those unblinking eyes!  My review of Visiden Visidane's Upheaval: Breaking Point, below.

Impressions before reading:  Besides the cover art, I have what feels to me like surprisingly little familiarity with this story; I know it's an epic-length warfic, and was written relatively early in the show's run (set expectations for canon accordingly), but not much about it beyond that.  "Epic-length warfic" isn't my usual cup of tea, but I'm willing to give it a go.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  By accidentally triggering a magical artifact, Twilight inadvertently teleports beyond the boundaries of the Equestria she knows, and into a land where ponies fight endless wars to protect the innocence of Twilight and the other "chosen."  But those endless wars have taken their toll over thousands of years, and not every pony on the outside is eager to defend Equestria, its rulers, and its ancient division.

Thoughts after reading:  In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a story I reviewed two years ago: The Age of Wings and Steel.  Specifically, both of them use a whole bunch of terrible cliches and cardboard cutouts to construct something much more readable than it by rights ought to be.

Let's start with the cast.  Upheaval has a large cast of original characters, almost all of which are one-sentence caricatures.  "Bitter, angry doctor with a soft heart underneath his gruff exterior," for example, is a description of one of the more important such characters--and that description is essentially a full and complete accounting of his character, anything else being either supporting details which build into that archetype, or physical descriptors.  This is not a unique occurrence in the story by any stretch.

Meanwhile, the main six are regularly reduced to one or two relevant characteristics.  This in and of itself isn't really a problem, as it's treated as an in-universe phenomenon--the girls are shown retreating into different behaviors or coping strategies to deal with being thrust into a world full of violent death.  The issues arise when those behaviors don't match the archetypes which those characters are "supposed" to be filling.  To name the most obvious example, at one point in the story Applejack assaults Rainbow Dash for having the gall to not hate killing enough--not just "pushes her around," but ends up striking RD, in anger, with a deadly weapon (albeit clearly without intent to kill), after being both the initiator and escalator of the argument that led to that fight, and starting the fight herself.  However, because AJ has already been cast as "the reasonable one" and Dash as "the unstable one," this is treated by the narrative as proof that Dash is dangerously close to falling apart.  On other occasions, characters seem to spontaneously gain or lose knowledge for the sake of a scene: a pony named Vanguard Clash manages to both be "certain" that a personal enemy is dead, and dedicated to killing her "when I see her again" at one point.

This is just one symptom of the larger trouble: character actions are almost inevitably defined by the needs of the narrative, rather than any particular sense of how that character would act.  Here, at least, the OCs monodimensional-ness means that that guiding hand of the plot is less obvious.  But "less" is still several miles away from "not;" the main villain, for example, is supposed to be a genius and a master plotter, but this is almost entirely an informed attribute.  Her ploys invariably rely on characters either acting patently against their own self-interest, making specious leaps of logic, or else are simply dependent on random chance, their success based entirely on timing which couldn't be predicted in advance (but which invariably occur exactly as she would need them to).  Meanwhile... well, both the setup and the major beats of the story revolve around Celestia making precisely the wrong choice at every point throughout history, and being precisely wrong about every single thing she believes.  This is in no way an exaggeration, nor is it played for comic effect.

And yet... this is still a remarkably readable story.  It is most certainly the type of story you need to turn your brain off for--from the early chapters on, characters regularly do things that make little sense based on their dispositions, and no sense in terms of their motivations.  But those decisions are all geared toward guiding the story toward a broadly archetypal roller coaster of an action/war fic.  Meanwhile, those archetypes on which so many of the characters are based are used to exactly the effect for which they're intended, which results in writing that may be cliche and predictable, but which leverages that predictability to its advantage.  "Bitter, angry doctor with a soft heart underneath his gruff exterior," who I mentioned earlier, is a good example of this: the author is careful to place him in situations which let him show his stripes (well, stripe) in clear and evocative ways--ways which are effective precisely because the reader can recognize the shorthand being used.  Writing which is at times painfully redundant ("Upon seeing Twilight, [Rarity] approached with an apologetic expression. 'Twilight, I must apologize...'") turns from infuriating to welcome when combat is being described, with Visidane showing a good sense for how to maintain clarity without bogging down quick-paced events.

Similarly, the battles--and the sweep of the war, generally--don't hold up to more than a modicum of consideration, but if you read the mood of them, then they're exciting and satisfying.  The individual events, and the interpretations applied by the narrative and characters to them, drive relentlessly forward and maintain their essential energy.  If you stop to read critically, things fall apart quickly--castles fall, super-soldiers are dispatched, and fifth columns activate and disintegrate in time to the needs of the plot, not based on any sense for the mechanics of pre-gunpowder warfare, and that's without getting into the... let's say, less-than-full consideration given to how an army with a sizable air force and magic at its disposal might utilize those, or might learn how to utilize them over the course of, literally, thousands of years of constant bloodshed.  But, if you let that all wash over you, the flow of combat is invariably on-point.

Pacing is a little difficult to evaluate, because Upheaval is not a complete story.  It is very much Part One of a series, and does not "end" so much as "reach a waypoint in the narrative."  Viewed in that light, things like the (very) late introduction of the main villain, or lack of resolution on the "main six aren't in Harmony with one another anymore" plotline, make perfect sense.  But for anyone considering picking up the story, make no mistake: this is not a self-contained story.

Star rating:

This story feels in many places like a sincere attempt to make a bunch of terrible, lazy ideas work.  In one sense, it's a failure: the characters are unbelievable caricatures, the strings they dance on are always visible, and things happen the way they do for no particularly good (in-story) reason.  On the other hand, those two sentences are also a pretty good description of a lot of your "popcorn fare" blockbusters these days (well, maybe replace "sincere" with "cynical," but other than that).  Those aren't the kind of movies that tend to attract critical acclaim, but that doesn't mean they can't be enjoyable with the right mindset--and despite any reports to the contrary, I don't believe in telling people how they're "supposed" to enjoy something.

Recommendation:  This strikes me as the warfic equivalent of Past Sins, minus the overhype: despite plenty of clear flaws, it does a couple of things really well, and knows how to keep moving forward with a long wordcount.  If you're in the market for a high-action thrill ride that will keep you turning pages, this will definitely provide.  But with that said, anyone who's going to be bothered by... let's pick a fairly early example, and say, "Applejack being perfectly willing to abandon her family forever without so much as a goodbye," should steer clear.

Next time:  The Moon, The Flower, And The Door, by Bucking Nonsense


  1. I feel so much better now. :) Also amused to note that I made note of the ubiquity of the cover art when I reviewed this, too. XD

  2. Vanguard Clash sounds like the name of a hero in an 80s themed western film.

    1. He's almost entirely the reason I couldn't finish this story. :B

  3. This series sincerely reads as something the author made up as he was going along. As such, you can see a clear growth in how he approaches the characters and the plot. I mean, the "main villain" introduced here isn't even the main villain of the series.

    If you ever decided to read on, I can assure you that Reckoning fixes some of the issues you pointed out here, but has plenty of pacing issues thanks to the way it "splits the party", so to speak.

  4. I read The Old Guard the other day after someone recommended it, not realising it wasn't a standalone (this isn't mentioned in its description) and so floundering horribly. It felt awfully epic, though, and I was wondering whether to read the Upheaval series to give myself some context. Probably not, given this.

  5. This was very much what I call a Fandom Upswing story. I started reading (and enjoying) it because I was at that point where I didn't have a strong critical filter as long as MORE PONY.

    But nowadays, when I'm trying to winnow down my RIL list to the best of the best and still finding it unmanageably long, I have no interest in starting on the "sequel."

  6. Yeah, this about sums up my feelings on it as well. It's an enjoyable fic if you can forgive some real egregious flaws, such as Celestia's entire characterization and arc. I come back to it every so often to reread it just for kicks. The sequel, if you ever get to it, introduces some pretty interesting ideas and has about the same feeling of 'popcorn fic', though.

  7. It's been so long since I originally read this, I didn't even remember some of these issues. Still, I'm glad to hear that I wasn't misremembering the things I enjoyed about it. Vis really does have a talent for action scenes.

    It's been a damn long time since I left off with this series, though. I stopped reading like four chapters towards the end of its sequel, Reckoning, because I was just too busy at the time, and I never got back to it. I feel like I really should. I always wondered how it ended.