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After yesterday, I'm still feeling overfull with the milk of human kindness (incidentally; that's always seemed like kind of a gross metaphor to me. Human kindness is warm and fuzzy, and warm and fuzzy milk sloshing over a glass and spilling all over everything is a terrible mental image). But I'll try to resist the urge to just go around handing out 5-stars like candy! I know you all come here for OPINIONS, and I'm not going to let your generosity weaken them!
Though, I wouldn't mind handing out a bunch of 5-stars, since that would mean that I get to read a bunch of superb fanfics... well, sounds like a win-win, doesn't it? Well, we'll see what happens. In fact, we'll see right now! Click down below the break for my review of Codex Ex Equus's Changeling Courtship Rituals.
Impressions before reading: A comedy about Twilight and Chrysalis getting accidentally married sounds like it could be pretty funny. However, a shipfic about Twilight and Chrysalis accidentally getting married sounds kind of dumb, assuming that by "shipfic" we mean "a story the purpose of which is to pair up the main characters." A crack premise which also brings up consent questions is fine as a joke, but would have a lot to overcome if it's supposed to be the basis of a serious relationship, or one where the reader is supposed to be invested in a successful romantic denouement. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I hope I'm about to read a comedy, not a shipfic with some jokes in it.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Twilight goes to confront Queen Chrysalis for the "final" time, she discovers that Changeling courtships are built around mutual antagonism--and their interactions to date have been very antagonistic. Now, Twilight has to figure out what to do about her "new wife," preferably without starting an interspecies war--or upsetting Chrysalis to much, which concern she increasingly finds weighing on her mind...
Thoughts after reading: It turns out that I needn't have worried; this is a thoroughly silly story from start to finish, and whenever it appears that it's about to start taking its premise too seriously (as at the end, when it briefly looks like this will veer into actual erotica), it quickly pulls the rug out from under itself, revealing a keen awareness of how absurd the whole idea of what's happened is--and more importantly, how absurd everyone's reactions to it (and to each other) are.
In a lot of ways, the characters here reminded me of the Mentally Advanced Series (for lack of a central hub, I'm just linking to one of my favorite early ones): it takes all our favorite characters, and twists their personalities while still retaining a few essential traits. For example, you have a Rarity who, yes, still is big into fashion... but she's also perfectly happy to arrange for Blueblood to have an "unfortunate accident" and get replaced by someone a little more personable, if the opportunity presents itself. You have a Celestia who's perfectly willing to shrug off her own near-murder as "just one of those things" not five minutes after it's been attempted. You have Nightmare Moon accidentally reveal that she's still around and plotting, and Twilight's reaction is basically to say "that was too weird, let's just forget that ever happened."
And all of that is fine, in the context of this story, precisely because it never takes itself seriously. Courtship Rituals never asks the reader to care about any of its protagonists, and any time it seems like it might, it quickly reveals that it was just leading you on. It's a somewhat cynical brand of humor, it's true, but it's consistent and on-point for what it is.
I did find that the story ran somewhat longer than I'd have liked, however. For more than half of the fic, the central joke is "Twilight hopes somepony will give her an excuse to gracefully exit her marriage, but discovers that everypony is ridiculously open to her and Chrissy being together." That's a fine joke, and the author does find several different ways to explore it across multiple characters... but I still found that it lost some of its charm on the third, fourth, and fifth repetitions. There's also the question of the post-bachelorette party chapter, which... I won't say it wasn't funny, but it was awfully exactly-what-you-expect from a post-bachelorette party piece of comedy. Compared to some of the more creative moments in the fic, it felt flat to me.
It also did take a bit for the story to establish its tone. A lot of this is down to the fact that Chrysalis and Twilight are the only two real characters in the story for the first two chapters, and until some other ponies show up (that is, until the character of Equestria as presented in this fic is shown), it's not at all clear how seriously one is supposed to take the story. Once the tone of the fic is fully established, the opening falls into place, but it's a shame that there weren't some stronger hints about the characterization comedy earlier on.
I should also note that the story ends with some heavy sequel bait. It does leave off at a narratively satisfying point, not counting the stinger epilogue; this isn't half a story masquerading as a complete fic. But it does practically beg you to read its follow-up/continuation, if that's something that affects your interest in the story one way or the other.
When this fic is on, it's hilarious. But there are two things that are influencing to shade this down, rather than up, from the four-three borderlands where it was sitting as I sat down to type this review. The first is audience: one of the things I look for in great writing is the ability to appeal to readers outside of a story's target demographic (that doesn't mean "even readers who aren't the target demographic will love this," mind--just that it still could have appeal to readers who aren't already predisposed to love it). I suspect that while there's a relatively large "target audience" here, this is the sort of fic that probably won't win over many who doesn't find character destruction and parody-romance amusing. Second, the humor does get repetitive in places, as the same situations get recycled in various forms, as well as in places when stock humor replaces character assassination as the comedic weapon of choice. Together, those are enough to drag me towards "There are some minor problems with this story, but it is still unquestionably a high-quality work."
Recommendation: Fans of absurd comedies, and cynical humor in general (emphasis on the "humor," in this case), should definitely give this story a try. It's also a good choice for readers who like their worldbuilding on the absurd side. If those things sound grating to you, though--plenty of people don't like cynicism and/or refuge in audacity in their ponyfic--then this might not be the best choice for you.
Next time: Forever and Again and Again, by Titanium Dragon