The author didn't give any cover art, so I get to pick for him! Let's be honest, there was only ever one choice of subject material, relevance to the story itself be damned. Oh, also: to read the story, click the image or follow this link.
Because of Christmas and New Year's both falling on a Sunday this year, "winter break" for our district is only going to include six days off, instead of the usual seven or, most often, eight. I know it shouldn't matter to me--winter break is still the same number of days in absolute terms, and the school year involves a set number of school days regardless--but it still feels like I'm being cheated, somehow. Oh well; my review is Estee's Post Negative Comments Only, below the break.
Impressions before reading: My overwhelming impressions are negative: the clickbait-y title, the lack of a cover image, and the description listing this as a stand-alone side-story to an unfinished fanfic by the same author (this is the major reason I've read so little by Estee, despite being assured he's a quality writer: almost everything of his seems to be expansions on an incomplete story with a six-figure wordcount)... all of these scream "beware!" to me. But I've been assured that the story really does stand alone (in fact, I'm told that "I don't think it has anything to do with the stuff that happens in Estee's other stories," which... I guess is a good thing? Somehow, that just makes me more trepidatious), and both of Estee's stories that I've read have been perfectly not-terrible. Still, this is a story I'd never have touched absent a Fandom Classic recommendation; we'll see how it goes.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Princess Cadance isn't Sombra--but one wouldn't know it from the terror the crystal ponies show around her. Desperate to stop their fearful sycophancy, she decides to issue an edict requiring everypony to give her honest criticism.
Thoughts after reading: This is a much, much better story than I would have guessed. Don't be fooled by the title: this isn't some lazy piece of semi-ponified meta, but is instead a story which looks at a serious problem with a genuine thoughtfulness belied by the goofiness of its premise. There's a lot of silliness in the core concept, but this is no comedy: that silliness is taken seriously, and its consequences are played for drama and character development, rather than for laughs.
This tone is reinforced by the fuzzy, slightly meandering writing style, which serves to obscure the humorous notes of the story somewhat. In a comedy, that would be a terrible mistake; in a story like this, that same obscurement helps keep things like Shining Armor's absurd "disguise" from feeling too slapstick when contrasted with the more serious elements it cohabitates with. On the downside, that same style does make this story feel longer than it actually is, exhibiting as it does a tendency to say in thirty words what it could in ten. Still, this isn't a fic that I felt was too long for its own good--or at least, if it was, it wasn't in the egregious "this should be half its current length" category.
Where Negative Comments does tend to fall short is in its voicing. Specifically, the fact that every character, although there are some cosmetic changes to their dialogue (saying "gonna" vs. "going to," for example), uses basically the same sentence structures and cadences when they talk. This particularly stands out with Iron Will, whose ellipsis-filled musings are strikingly out of character even allowing for the possibility that his "stage persona" is distinct from his normal dialogue. More importantly, his lines are almost impossible to tell from Cadance's, or Shining Armor's, or the Empire's ministers, in any ways except the superficial and the material content.
That's the sort of writing you often see in polemics, where characters take on the tone of the author in order to impart the author's received wisdom to the reader. Thankfully, despite this story having a clear (if not exactly controversial) political statement near to its core, that kind of demagoguery is nowhere on display here. In fact, I was rather pleased with the ending, and how it did a rather good job of addressing the question of monarchical ethics. That's fraught territory for any fic to venture into, but here it's handled both thoughtfully and in a way that feels both appropriate to the milieu, and palatable to 21st century mores.
Where the story really shines is in its smaller moments of darkness. There's the running idea/joke (both as necessary, really) of "the crystal ponies are still terrified of their ruler," but rather than sell that entirely through the over-the-top histrionics and yes-man-ing that they display toward Cadence, the fic delivers a steady trickle of reminders of just how frightening Sombra was; from the magical artifacts which populate the tower to remnants of Sombra's laws still in the process of repeal or modification and more, this Negative Comments doesn't just tell us "things were bad." Nor does it show us simply through its characters. Instead, it uses both them and the setting at large to constantly reinforce this idea--a reinforcement which pays enormous dividends as the story progresses, since that fear has been so ingrained into the story itself.
★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
There's one big flaw to this fic: that it's essentially written in one "voice," across narration, dialogue, and character. However, that voice is a good match for the tone and content of the story, and that made it an easier flaw to overlook than it otherwise might have been.
Recommendation: If you enjoy stories which can use a bit of central humor to tell a serious story, this is an excellent example of the style. Likewise, readers who appreciate sad but fundamentally uplifting stories will probably enjoy this. If undifferentiated dialogue bothers you, though, you may find this less to your tastes.
Next time: It’s Not Like I’m Deaf, by Arreis of Avalon