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Just a lil' reminder that if you had any intention of reading and/or voting on any of the stuff in the current writeoff, you've got just over a day left (from when this post goes up, anyway) to do so! And, since the preliminary round is over, your odds of guessing which fic I wrote have risen from 1:19 to 1:10. Come give it a shot!
But while you're here, maybe start by checking out my review of MrNumbers' The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon.
Impressions before reading: This doesn't look like something I'll particularly enjoy, on the surface. My opinion of steampunk mirrors Brunel's, I'm always a bit cautious of AUs (which can be great when done properly, but are too often just an excuse to ignore canon), and the fact that the story seems to be centered around one of the silliest bits of headcanon which have inexplicably managed to gain traction in this fandom--that Luna was actually, physically sent to the surface of the moon when she was banished--is a heck of a cherry on top. I've heard only good things about this story going in, but had I not, I'd be pretty darn leery going in.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Twilight Sparkle creates Equestria's first high-powered telescope, she sees something nopony expected on the surface of the moon: a pony. She quickly becomes infatuated with the mare, and begins making plans to rescue her, but nothing about that is easy; even leaving aside the logistics of a moon mission, this Equestria is a place of subterfuge and misery, presided over by the dangerous Mourning Princess.
Thoughts after reading: It is a tribute to this story that I enjoyed it as much as I did, given how little the things which make it up interest me. In case it wasn't clear, that was a compliment.
This is, in fact, two stories, in tone and style; the first is a steampunk slice-of-life fic about Twilight meeting the girls and falling in love with an idea, while the second is a rolicking intrigue/adventure tale of plots, counterplots, lust, and occasionally massive explosions. These elements, you will note, are mostly not mutually exclusive, but the fact that the former are all heavily concentrated at the front of the fic while the latter are held to the back, really makes it feel like two different stories which just happen to form two halves of a complete narrative. This does have its advantages--the more trite or shoehorned steampunk elements, such as the fetishization of Tesla (wisely, thankfully underplayed in this fic), are left to the wayside after the first few chapters--but does create for a rather disjointed reading experience.
Contributing to that disjointedness are the frequent, unclear timeskips which the narrative takes. More than once, I discovered that several months or even years had passed only when I was well into a chapter (in one particularly memorable case, because a character who had been a young colt the last time I saw him turned up as a young adult). Most chapters open with a vague hint that "time has passed," but in several cases it's difficult if not impossible to get a sense for when things are happening without reading well into the chapter in search of answers--and even then, inter-chapter timeskips wait to trip up the unwary.
But although there's a fair bit of awkwardness to the way things are put together, MrNumbers does a remarkable job of keeping everything interesting. This starts with the characters: every one of the main six (and Spike, though he is very distractingly forgotten halfway through the story after being a key character prior to that) is a recognizable but twisted version of their canon selves, and seeing how the setting has changed them is a source of continuous interest. I say continuous because, rather than simply give each of them one or two traits and call it a day, this story builds them up, bit by bit, slowly revealing layers to each of their personalities, in an organic manner which mirrors Twilight's own learning about them. These revelations also shed some light on the nature of the AU, and although its root isn't revealed until near the end of this story, it does feel like a basically consistent take on its core idea.
Also keeping things interesting is the pervasive humor of the fic. It's clear the author has a penchant for witty observations and biting remarks, and this story gives him liberal opportunities to utilize both. Sometimes, the cruder or more grandiose jokes go too far afield--an (admittedly hilarious, in and of itself) cameo from Flash Sentry comes to mind as pushing the bounds of believable in-story reactions to an event--but for the most part, the current of intelligent comedy serves the story very well, and keeps what might otherwise seem a very dark story from becoming dreary.
The main missteps here are in narrative cohesion. As I've already mentioned, the tone and style of the story change drastically between the beginning and end, and Spike's disappearance is particularly baffling. But plenty of story elements are treated quite differently from one part of the story to another. When Twilight first meets Pinkie, for example, the setting (her "home") is patently ridiculous and doesn't hold up to a modicum of thought... which is fine, because it's treated as a silly, obviously-implausible setup by the narrative, even as the scene itself ends up becoming more serious. But as the story wears on, it begins to take that setting, more and more seriously in a way which works in the moment, but doesn't really hold water if one compares them to the narrative opinion of that first Pinkie chapter (and on the subject of Pinkie and narrative cohesion, it's worth noting that a major subplot involving her and the professor who was "caring" for her gets a lot of play before being completely abandoned at the end, with no resolution to either of the key elements of drama between them). In other ways, most notably but not exclusively the central romance, things are taken in the moment in ways which may not fit perfectly with the larger picture.
The final chapter, it's worth noting, is also a letdown. A number of interesting plot points are left at the wayside, and instead most of the focus is on quickly resolving the AU-defining element which had been only just revealed (in a strangely slapdash manner, at that), establishing romantic pairings, and conspicuously ignoring the hundreds of ponies that Twilight presumably murdered. The last chapter does contain a neat portrayal of a semi-unreliable narrator, but I found that that schtick stretched out too long for my tastes; personally, I had quite gotten tired of it by the time that section of the fic was finished.
But even through all that, I found myself still entertained. And while I've already mentioned the humor, another part of this fic's success lies in the author's ability to lay out a complex plot. Admittedly, MrNumbers proves much more adept at social plots than at physical ones (several times, key details are forgotten or overlooked in action or event descriptions), but the subtle and not-so-subtle traps that Celestia lays for Twilight are both clever and character-defining, Twilight's ability to reason through various events is likewise, Rarity's utter disenchantment with everything and attendant willingness to deconstruct it at length is invariably amusing, and so forth. Though it may have other flaws, The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon consistently shines whenever one or more characters has to stop and analyze the social or political situation.
★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
I wavered a good, long while between three and four stars. In the end, I decided that if I went down to three, it would be at least in some small part because I think steampunk is dumb and Luna living on the moon's surface is dumber. Those didn't seem like entirely fair reasons to denigrate a story, so I edged high on the strength of my consistent engagement with and enjoyment of the story.
Steampunk and Luna living on the moon's surface are still dumb, though. Fight me!
Recommendation: For fans of narrative wit, conversational gambits of all sorts, and faux-scientific exploration in the shadow of an adventure plot, this is a page-turner you'll want to be sure to try. It's not a good choice for readers who hate lose (or rather, abandoned) threads, though, and might not be the best choice for folks who value cohesiveness in their novels.
Next time: A Change in Three Parts, by GaPJaxie