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Impressions before reading: "It's long" is the obvious first impression--checking in at a little less than three times the length of the original Fo:E, there are a lot of words to get through here. Even assuming that this fic follows Kkat's example and uses its copious verbiage to explore the characters and setting in depth, putting together a coherent narrative that stretches that long is no mean feat. I'll also admit to being a little leery based on having heard this story described multiple times as "Fo:E with the abuse and violence cranked up to 11." That... really doesn't sound like something I'd enjoy.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Blackjack is a security pony from Stable 99: a wonderful place, as long as you don't think about it. But then raiders destroy her home, searching for a mysterious piece of software called EC-1101... which Blackjack stores on her Pipbuck, and takes with her out into the Wasteland, to draw her new foes away from the Stable. At first, she's just running to stay alive, but soon she finds herself enmeshed in the vicissitudes of both the present and the pre-war past, as existential threats modern, centuries-old, and as old as life itself weave their plots, with her as pawn, fulcrum, or both...
Thoughts after reading: To back up a bit: PH is actually subdivided into five "books," but I'm reviewing the whole shebang here. Why? Well, those five aren't self-contained stories; one couldn't simply read book 1 on PH and feel that they'd reached an appropriate ending point for the story. And since my nominal goal here is to help people find stories they'd enjoy reading, it didn't make much sense to me to review just one piece of a story; some series you might plan to read only the first X books of, but with PH you're either going to read it all, quit because you dislike it, or never start in the first place. The upside of all that is that this is a long review; best pack the trail mix, kiddos.
It's also a review that's going to make a lot of direct comparisons to Kkat's story. Normally, I try to avoid directly comparing different fanfics for more than specific examples, but in the case of an explicit fanfic-of-a-fanfic, I think it's inevitable--doubly so because PH goes to great lengths at times to explain, justify, or just retcon some of the less thoroughly explained elements of Fo:E. In that way, I'm treating PH a bit like a sequel: it's not a work which is meant to be read independently of its predecessor, and to a large degree, my review is based on the assumption that the prospective reader has already read that fanfic. If not... well, you could read this first, but there are a lot of characters and plot elements, especially later in the story, which will come out of nowhere and make no sense absent the context which reading Fo:E first will provide.
Now, let's talk about the forced sex and violence! There's a lot of forced sex and violence.
That shouldn't come as a surprise; this is an Fo:E fic, after all. And frankly, the levels of each here aren't quite as visceral as I'd been lead to believe; sure, there's a scene where a character is literally nailed to the floor, continually raped for over an hour, and then... well, let's just let it stand that there are multiple "and then"s to go with all that... but even if the events are absurdly nauseating, they aren't described in the kind of stomach-turningly intimate way that I had been lead to believe. Make no mistake, this is much "worse" than Fo:E in terms of extremity of content, and if you thought that Kkat's story went too far, PH is definitely not a story you'll want to read... but in terms of the story's ability to shock and appall, I actually found it somewhat less effective than its predecessor.
At first, I thought of this as a flaw, but as I got farther into the story, I realized that it was actually the product of Somber's differing goals for this story than Kkat's for the original. While Fo:E used the frequency of extreme violence to lure the audience into the same apathy the characters began to develop (while still retaining the ability to shock when it intended to show something as truly monstrous), in PH the real horrors are emotional. Blackjack as a character spends basically the entire story so deep in a pit of self-loathing and villain-justification that she can barely process the violence around her beyond its direct impact on her. In PH, the various terrible events and actions often blend together into a miasmal fug which inspires more exhaustion than shock--and while that doesn't always make for a pleasant reading experience, it is effective at narratively mirroring Blackjack's depressive tendencies.
In case the above paragraph didn't make it clear, this is a story which looks extensively at the main characters' (not just Blackjack's) feelings of inadequacy, and which devotes much of its length to exploring her and others' battles with depression, despondency, and dependency issues. It's interesting to note that the drivers are almost entirely internal, despite the obvious external inducers (/excuses); the tolls of things like killing in self-defense or rampant substance abuse are glossed over or ignored, in favor of a focus on more personal elements. Blackjack doesn't have any inherent moral qualms about kill-or-be-killed situations, so these aren't dwelled on, but her deeply-ingrained fear of becoming an executioner makes less adrenaline-charged life-or-death situations exponentially more fraught for her, and thus, for the story.
Of course, the story isn't all angsting; there's also the fighting itself. In the first two or three books, its broadly similar in style (if not, as I said above, in purpose or tone) to Fo:E. However, as the story progresses it becomes more, for lack of a better word, "anime-ish." There's a certain cartooniness and exaggeration to combat from the very beginning, but later chapters are rife with Shadow of the Colossus-style weak-point-targeting, improbable overkill, absurd acrobatics (absurd even accounting for the fact that the zebra's pre-established MO is absurd acrobatics, that is), and combat descriptions that call nothing to mind more than the HP system, where taking a shotgun blast is in no way incapacitating as long as you're tough enough, and damage often has no immediate impact on performance. There are several fight scenes toward the end which were simply too over-the-top for me to take seriously, to the detriment of the story (this sense of ill-fit it exacerbated by the presence, in several of these scenes, of characters from the original Fo:E; the sheer gap between what everypony is capable of their versus here widens the disconnect). It never reaches the level of characters screaming the names of the attacks they're launching back and forth for pages at a time, thank goodness, but it does become inappropriately silly in places.
But in other places, it's entirely appropriately silly. One thing I was surprised to find in this story: a keen sense of when to cut the drama with a welcome bit of levity. While these interludes were rather too widely-spaced for my tastes (and, it must be said, a little hit-or-miss; a lot of the sexual humor was entirely too cringy for me, though I admit I've always been rather prudish about horse sex), they nevertheless offer enough respite to keep the story from totally drowning under its own weight, and give a bit of contrast for the larger, depression-exploring elements of the story. A pair of seaponies and a Steel Ranger who is macho chivalry personified (ponysonified?) were the particular standouts for me, at least in their early appearances (both are given more--but not entirely--serious minor roles later in the story), but Somber shows a real knack for crafting comic relief characters who can poke a little fun at the story events, and even setting, without making a joke of the world.
To come back to what I said earlier about the Fo:E cast: Littlepip and her friends make a few appearances in this story, and unfortunately, I found them to be mostly detrimental to the story. In addition to the above-mentioned issue of calling attention to the discordant powerlevels at play, it also invites the reader to directly compare Littlepip's and Blackjack's travails... which leads the reader to the rather unfortunate conclusion that the latter's troubles exist mostly to one-up the former's. To his credit, Somber shows an awareness of this, bit a bit of lampshade-hanging doesn't really address the issue.
Speaking of issues: whatever writing issues one might take with a story, they're almost certainly present here. Despite the number of editors, there are still missing words, spellcheck errors and the like. And it's not just editing, but every other poor writing decision you can imagine. Those level-up notes I disliked in Kkat's story? Check. In-story links to thematic music? Check. Excessively aggressive fourth-wall-breaking? Check. Lazy referential humor? Check. Cutesy, grating, phonetically-rendered voicings? Check. My old nemesis, letters full of crossed-out words and phrases? Check.
And yet, these are mostly isolated incidents. In a short epistolary work, convenient crossed-out words are an immersion-breaking disaster; here, they represent *pulls out calculator* about .007% of the entire story, and are a relatively minor note even with that context. Similar writing flaws are similarly minute in quantity compared to the entirety of the work, and minor in their impact. Meanwhile, the sheer quantity of quality construction overwhelms those flaws, and when I speak of "quality construction" I don't mean merely "not grammatically incorrect."
In any lengthy story, it's important to have thematic and literal ties to connect the work together--to keep it from feeling like a series of events with only the most tenuous narrative connection. Somber uses structural repetition to good effect in his writing, returning again and again to the same words expressing the same themes, while using the changing context in which they're spoken/written to invest them with new meaning. At the start of the story, Blackjack's "don't think about it," is simply a reflection of her desire to keep her life simple. As the story goes on, it morphs into a statement about the reality of Stable 99, a mantra against self-recrimination, and more. It's ultimately developed from a character tick into an entire philosophy, and it is only perhaps the earliest example of this kind of use.
Meanwhile, the thematic ties of the story are equally strongly developed. As I touched on a bit in Wednesday's post, PH is primarily concerned with how its characters--protagonist, antagonist, and other--deal with self-recrimination, and how they process and internalize their own failings (perceived or real). Almost every named character in this story is explored in this way to some degree. Partway through book two I was starting to worry that Somber's grand plan was simply to give every character a sob story (the go-to of every writer who wants to give their villains a bit of depth), but as the story continues I found that he was by no means a one-trick pony (heh) of an author; in PH, he's able to give characters motives which are varied, unique, and persuasive, without turning every bad guy into yet another "daddy-never-hugged-me," as a lesser story might. The ability to define convincing motives and beliefs for characters--and to know when to go into detail, and when to leave things vague--are constantly on display in this fic.
As far as the narrative is concerned, the first half of PH is similar in genre to Fo:E: both are post-apocalyptic tales which look at how the Equestria we all know and love could possibly have become post-apocalyptic in the first place. It's interesting to compare Kkat's and Somber's approaches; both explore how the main six could be complicit in horrific acts of violence, but where Kkat's exploration mostly paints them as overwhelmed ponies doing their best in an untenable situation, Somber delves more into their failings, both moral and predictive, as well as looking at the manipulations to which they were subject. The second half, however, goes in an entirely different direction, one I'd describe more as "Lovecraftian." It's not a particularly sudden or ill-prepared switch; this doesn't feel like two stories mashed together, say. But there's a big switch in narrative between "discover the purpose of EC-1101 while slowly unraveling what the mysterious Office of Interminestry Affairs was doing during the war," and "send a mission to the moon to stop a star-god from destroying the world" (a simplification, but if you want context and nuance, read the story!), and readers who go in wanting nothing but the former may find that the story drifts in a direction they're less than amenable to.
Having said that the second half isn't inherently bad, however... I must admit I found the ending a bit of a letdown. Specifically, the author's attempts to ratchet up the stakes in the last few chapters didn't work well, for reasons I'm going to try my best to explain without resorting to the spoiler tag.
See, a lot of major characters die in this story--many more than once. This is a story in which death is cheap, and in which characters who are literally blown to smithereens in full view of Blackjack can and do pop up a couple dozen chapters later. That's not a bad thing, by itself, but one of the primary ways the author tries to raise the drama at the end is by killing off a sizable chunk of the named cast. In the context of the larger story, this doesn't really work, because the reader has gotten so used to assuming that death is a minor inconvenience that its impact is negated, and it's often obvious only with the benefit of hindsight that one can tell a character death was "real"--and by then, its potential for emotional impact (on the reader) has passed. The ending doesn't even subvert this, particularly; many of those characters who are killed off pop right back in one form or another, and I was honestly surprised that two in particular didn't make an appearance in the epilogue, miraculously whole and sound (okay, spoilers here: I really expected Rainbow Dash to have survived the Rainboom, and Goldenblood to come back for a scene with Fluttershy. For that matter, I'm still assuming Big Daddy is alive, even though he never made an appearance after getting dusted). Now, the problem isn't that those characters should have lived, or that the scenes I expected would have made a better story. It's not even that they were poorly-written deaths. It's that I didn't even register them as key moments in the story until after the fact, precisely because the fic had primed me to expect them to keep showing up.
But what the ending--by which I'm now referring to book 5, and a bit of book 4 as well--does give Somber the freedom to explore some very different ground from Fo:E, and in many ways this is where the fic really comes into its own. The rest of the story is, at its best, a wonderful exploration and reinterpretation of another author's setting, and at its worst, purely reactionary. Once matters turn more mythical, however, PH develops a freedom to explore new settings and original characters in ways outside the purview of the Wasteland as Littlepip told of it. It also gives the author a chance to show off his vocabulary: "Gibbering orifices, fanged and revoltingly yonic," isn't a phrase you get to use when talking about gleefully barbaric raiders, after all.
That phrase, though, is a symptom of one of my biggest complaints about the story: the storytelling doesn't always make sense when one considers that it's Blackjack who's supposedly telling it. She displays a lot of traits of protagonal convenience: she's regularly said to be (and depicted as) pretty dumb... until the narrative calls on her to come up with a brilliant, out-of-the-box plan, or there's a need to drop a "yonic" into the narration. She's been raised her entire life to see males as nothing but studs, and this thinking drives fundamental aspects of her development... unless it would be easier for her to be gender-blind for a scene or character, in which case she is. Her idioms (probably forgivable as linguistic holdovers) and similes and metaphors (rather less so) are filled with flavors, relationship concepts, and other things which a stable mare would never have experienced. In short, what she knows, and how she thinks, can change with the whims of the story.
And yet, despite these missteps, PH still manages to craft a coherent picture of its protagonist, and uses the many and dramatic changes she goes through (physical, mental, and spiritual--this is a world where spiritual change can be inflicted, after all) to examine what makes her, essentially, her. Around her, it uses her companions to examine issues like immortality, the destructiveness of the revenge cycle, and hero-worship in nuanced and intelligent ways. This is a story which may be lengthy, but it's long for the best of reasons: because it has a lot to say.
★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
As I know I've said before, rating long stories is tough: in 1.7 million words, it should go without saying that there are some misfires, some eye-rolling scenes, some gratuitous sex, and a whole lot of other things that don't merit recommending. But there's also a plethora of wonderful descriptions, thoughtful character development, haunting imagery, and more. In the end, I have to go with my "overwhelming opinion," so to speak, and that is this: Project Horizons does everything which it sets out to do, and--while its content is sure to scare off many readers--does so in a way that can still be appreciated by even those who aren't in the target audience.
Also, my notes on the fic include the words "Stronghoof is best pony" three separate times. So, there's got to be something right here.
Seriously, though, this is a story which does a lot of things well a lot of the time, and which rarely wastes the reader's time. That last bit is one of the truest tests of any story, and to be able to say that of a story this long is a tribute to its quality.
Recommendation: Go back and re-read the fourth paragraph of the "Thoughts after reading" section. If your immediate reaction to the idea of a scene like that is absolute rejection, then this probably isn't the story for you. Besides that, I know that many people will be put off by the length, and that's a legitimate reason to be wary: it checked in at over 100 hours of reading time for me (granted, I don't read at anything like "top speed" when reading for a review, so a quick reader could probably finish quite a bit faster--we're still talking a big time commitment), and not everyone will be interested in risking investing themselves in something so massive. But if you're interested in seeing the Wasteland through a very different perspective than Kkat offered in the original Fo:E, this is a story that offers achingly believable depictions of depression and despair, clever narrative tricks of perspective, and a mesmerizing mix of bleakness, humor, action, and--despite it all--a fundamentally hopeful outlook.
Next time: No, I am Not a Brony, Get Me Outta Equestria!, by Bronywriter