Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 184: The Ballad of Echo the Diamond Dog

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

It's review time!  That magical part of your day when I distill 130,000 words worth of narrative into a few pithy paragraphs, the better for you all to decide if you're going to read them or not.  I have the power.

...Well, not much power, since it's still you that gets to decide what you will or won't be reading.  Nevertheless, I'll try to use what marginal amounts I may have for good and not for evil.  Now, go check out my review of Rust's The Ballad of Echo the Diamond Dog, below!

Impressions before reading:  Given that I wasn't terribly impressed with No, I am Not a Brony, Get Me Outta Equestria!, I'm a bit nervous about the "this totally isn't a typical self-insert fic, because I get turned into a dog instead of a pony" angle that the intro takes.  Hopefully, this isn't a case of protesting too much.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A brony gets sent to Equestria--but it doesn't go as well as he'd hoped.  Before the day's out, he's already been near-fatally mauled, an in the ensuing weeks, he'll save a nearby town from Hydras, diamond dogs, and more--all while taking the form of a species whom the ponies view with scorn.  Equestria, it turns out, isn't as bright an cheerful as it looks in the show.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  So, one of the first things that happens after our protagonist gets sent to Equestria is that he has his throat ripped out while defending Daring Do from Ahuizotl and his minions.  When he wakes up, this exchange occurs:

     [Daring Do said] "Anyway, once I got you out of the river, I saw your throat wide open. I used to work as a medic in college, so I know how to patch up a gash or two. Plus, being an adventurer like myself means that sooner or later you're going to get hurt. It pays to know how to take care of yourself.
     "I used the needle from my compass, but I didn't have any string. I went in your pockets and sure enough, I found some really tough stuff. Thick, but tough. I stitched you up right there on the riverbank. It was touch and go for a while, and I wasn't able to save your vocal chords. Those are damaged beyond my skill. I'm sorry, Echo, but I don't think you'll ever be able to speak again."
     I let that sink in for a moment. Something bothered me though. Why did I have string in my pockets? I gently ran a finger over my tender new wound, feeling it out. Sure enough, there was a thick cord holding my neck shut. Wait a minute... holy shit. The texture felt familiar, crushed in some places as if squeezed, but thick in others. I suddenly realized what she used.
Daring Do had saved my life with the needle from her compass... and my shoelaces.
Now, I'm not going to lie: that sounds pretty dumb to me.  But I will be the first to admit that I have no medical background, and this could well be one of those strange but plausible things which the world is full of.  As luck would have it, though, I live in a city where one out of every five people is employed in the medical industry!  So, I sent that passage to a friend of mine who works as an EMT (which seems like the sort of job most likely to bring someone into contact with "throat ripped out"-type wounds) and asked him what he thought of it.  Here's his reply:
Hey Chris:   
It's true that people can survive incredible trauma, but the quote you sent me doesn't sound possible.  To start with, stitches are largely cosmetic, and are absolutely not part of any triage. Echo could hypothetically survive having his throat slashed in certain ways, though it would depend on missing the carotid artery first and foremost, but he definitely couldn't survive having shoelaces struck through his neck repeatedly afterward. Carefully placed lightly applied pressure and a breathing tube might save his life, if properly inserted and sterilized. I don't know what Daring Do could do to save his vocal cords if his throat was wide open, maybe she meant that having your vocal cords ripped out can't be treated? That's certainly true. Interesting story you're reading.
So, there's that guilt, assuaged: one of the story's most pivotal early moments is, for lack of a better word, unbelievable.  It's hardly the only moment, either.

Much of the idiocy, however, comes from the characters directly.  A major theme in this story is "Echo outthinks his foes (and friends)."  However, rather than depicting him as a genius, the author instead opts to make every other character in the story a blithering idiot, incapable of such leaps of logic as "understanding what 'down' means, or "comprehending that a creature which eats metal can, therefore, eat metal restraints."  This doesn't so much make Echo look smart as it does make the puppet strings on all the other characters painfully clear to see.

Echo himself, meanwhile, is a fundamentally unpleasant character.  "But he's a diamond dog" notwithstanding, he has all the classic traits of a bad self-insert: in addition to his "intelligence" discussed above, he's physically gifted, he's almost immediately imbued with powerful, unprecidented magic, he's generally well-regarded and quick to be appreciated despite his "outcast" race (he only suffers even the barest trace of lasting opprobrium from villains and the designated wrongheaded).  And of course, there's his personality: the classic narcissistic whiner which substitutes snark for personality.  Echo is a character whose reaction to combat, conversation, and wonders beyond his wildest imaginings is consistently lowest-common-denominator insult comedy and or tired memes--regardless both of humor, and of whether they're something anyone would say in the first place.  I mean, if you can imagine a situation where you might, while held in the grips of primal terror, scream/think, "Oh Jesus, God, Allah, Zeus, Odin, Vishnu, Buddha, Ra, Princess Luna, and Stephen Colbert... SAVE MEEEEEE-E-E-E-E!," then perhaps you'll have more empathy for Echo than I do.  But regardles, he is a fundamentally unpleasant character whom the narrative completely fails to recognize as such, and that always makes for a long, unpleasant reading experience.

Not making him any more likable is the constant crassness which he exibits through the narration.  Lines like "he had a scraggly white fu-manchu going on that makes my pubic hair look like silk" from the first chapter are, regrettably, not uncommon.  Presumably done to help emphasize that this vision of Equestria is darker and edgier than the shows (something the story setting itself does perfectly well without the editorializing), this kind of coarse psuedo humor (I can only assume comedic intent) only undermines the fic's regular attempts to create some sense of drama or of serious stakes.

The story itself mostly revolves around the twin foci of discoving more about Discord and his motives (and about the major powers of Equestria generally), and the defence of the town of Wethoof, along with why said defence is necessary in the first place.  The former has some interesting cosmology elements, though they're rather undermined by the necessity of reducing some key gods' intellects in order to enhance Echo's by comparison.  The latter, unfortunately, ends up mostly being a vehicle to demonstrate Echo's superpowers, as well as ultimately giving him an opportunity to make a noble sacrifice (which, being "that kind of self-insert," is promptly fixed up as good as ever).  In short, even the more promising opportunities in this story are turned to dull, cringeworthy ends.

Star rating:

The best thing I can say about this story is that it has very solid editing.  Unfortunately, it's solid editing in service of an unbelievable, unpleasant, and otherwise un-recommendable story

Recommendation:  Unless you belong to the class of readers who find Spongebob references bookended by author-insert brag-imagining to be entertaining, I do not recommend this story.

Next time:  A FLEet|ng LIght |n thE DArknEsS, by Flashgen


  1. So you possess the other half of the Power Sword! Well, not for long, Chris. Once I've exposed the typographical errors in this review, your authority will be undermined, your influence wane, and Eternia shall be mine! Also, I'll finally be able to open that damned jawbridge

    The zero-ish spoiler summary contains two and's missing d's or apostrophes

    "Presumably done to help emphasize that this vision of Equestria is darker and edgier than the show's"

  2. Ooh, you haven't reviewed Fleeting Light? :O Awesome!

    And this was about my take on the story, too. My favorite part was when Discord literally kicks this brony into Equestria, and then I gave up a chapter or two afterward.

  3. Since when did Chris turn British?

  4. I remember reading this one early on in my fanfic forays, and up until just now I thought this was going to get a higher score. That said, not by much.

    Bits of it were unpleasant and/or strange, but I thought there was a good build-up to the final battle with the hydras, and even with the cringe-worthy material, I remember being interested in seeing how things would play out. I was reading it mainly for the adventure aspect, and I thought it got that aspect down reasonably well.

    Everything else I basically forced myself through: the romance, the comedy, the more obvious self-insert aspects, et cetera. And I'm still kinda peeved at the way the story builds up this one guy as though he was going to be the main villain, and then just has Ahuizotl jump in and replace him at the last hour after being absent throughout most of the story.

    Also, now I feel a bit embarrassed about letting my suspension of disbelief take that "shoelaces" thing without issue when I read that part a few years ago. It's not like I applauded it or anything; I just glossed over it while reading because my medical knowledge back then was practically non-existent. Man, do I feel imbecilic now. :(

    Good grief, though, I don't remember the protagonist being that bad, but I cringed at the "Fu Manchu" comment. Either my younger self was more forgiving/resilient, or I have a really bad memory.

    I will confess the "Stephen Colbert" gag made me snigger, but I can see how it would kill any sense of a threat being... well, a threat.

    All in all, an articulate review as always. May the quest for five stars continue.

    1. "Interesting story you're reading."

      Lastly, is it just me, or does this in context look like the polite and discrete way of saying "What the hell kind of story are you reading, Chris?"

    2. Yes. Yes it does.

      Granted, Chris is a teacher, so he could always claim a student wrote it.

  5. "I mean, if you can imagine a situation where you might, while held in the grips of primal terror, scream/think, "Oh Jesus, God, Allah, Zeus, Odin, Vishnu, Buddha, Ra, Princess Luna, and Stephen Colbert... SAVE MEEEEEE-E-E-E-E!," then perhaps you'll have more empathy for Echo than I do."

    I think there was a moment in one of the "Mummy" movies that had something like that, but with prayer objects on a necklace and (I think) based on the idea of it being directed towards the afterlife, not immediate physical aid. I thought it worked both as dark comedy and in establishing the character as a superstitious, unprincipled scoundrel. Notably, it's one of the few things I even think I remember from any of those films.

    Then again, it didn't include anything like an appeal to a contemporary news-parody anchor.

  6. Ooh. Harsh. That's the most vicious takedown of a story I've seen from you in a long while, Chris. Although, if it really is a self-insert, or even just a BiE, then that answers the question I was pondering last time about why I never read it myself.