It's the last week of the school year, and I'm scrambling. I'm behind on episodes, I've done less reading than I'd like, and that's just what's piling up in my pony sphere of influence. So, roundabout way of saying: I may end up missing a post this week, but I'll try not to. I've got enough material to make the necessary posts, but sometimes it's hard to find time even to turn those notes and drafts into a post proper.
But I'm ready for today, at least! Click down below the break for some short reviews (and one less-short review) of stuff I've recently read.
Around the World in 81 Days (And Other Problems Caused by Leap Years), by GaPJaxie
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Celestia and Twilight make a bet that Twilight can't circumnavigate the world in said amount of time. But beyond Equestria's borders lies a more complicated world than Spike or Twilight had ever imagined. Nevertheless, Spike is determined not to let Twilight down, no matter what he needs to do, nor even what Twilight might think best.
A few thoughts: After commenting in my last review of one of GaPJaxie's stories that "I'm starting to feel like maybe you guys aren't recommending the very best that GaPJaxie has to offer," I was pointed towards this story as one which has received plenty of critical acclaim, and which--while it may not be the author's most famous fic--could be the author's best. Having now read it, I absolutely agree with that assessment.
81 Days is, apparently, not based on the famous book, but rather on a video game--as such, I can't really comment on how much it may or may not borrow from its source material. What I can say is that it brilliantly expands upon Spike's character, using the many perils of travel (many of which Twilight is completely oblivious to) to dive deep into what matters most to him, and the developing way in which he views the world around him. It's also a startlingly harsh denunciation of inflexible optimism in the face of reality, and yet it never feels like a screed against that set of values; rather, it treats that quality as an almost precious innocence, and manages to convey a variety of viewpoints with respect (something I especially noted, given that a key complaint about the last story of the author's that I read was that it was so strawmannish (on the subject of things I noted in previous reviews, this story does still contain multiple cases of ponies moving "a few degrees," which is still just a ridiculous phrase, but I suppose all authors must be allowed their idiosyncrasies).
There are a lot of things I could highlight here that I loved: the reserved prose is a perfect fit for the type of story, the contrast between Equestria and the wider world is cleverly reflected in the discrepancies between Twilight and the characters who drift in and out of the narrative, the legend Spike and Twilight read together toward the end of the story is a brilliantly executed example of in-universe metafiction... I could go on and on. But perhaps the single best thing I can say about the story is this: its political and military geopolitics are unapologetically based around World War One, with all the cynicism, grimness, and tragic inevitability which that entails... and yet, it never feels as though Spike and Twilight are anything other than the ideal pair of characters to explore these events, nor does it ever divorce itself from Equestria in any way save those intended. And even as it explores all those Big Problems and Weighty Ideas, it never forgets the characters at the center of it all, and remains essentially human at every turn. The story is defined not by its conflicts and explosions, but by the smaller, quieter moments to which GaPJaxie wisely devotes the weight of narrative attention. Because it burdens familiar characters and new-yet-relatable ones alike with so many troubles which are beyond their ability to truly deal with, this story can feel overwhelming at times. But it's overwhelming in the best possible way, leaving the reader to slowly let out their breath as they ponder the slow-motion tragedies which unfold even as the world tour continues.
Recommendation: It's an absolute travesty that Would it Matter if I Was? has twenty times the views of this fic; if five years of reviews from me haven't yet established that the weight of readership doesn't always come down on the very best stories, here's your proof right here. Consider 81 Days highly, highly recommended to fans of adventure, to fans of politics, to fans of character studies, and to fans of Just Great Writing.
We Rent the Night, by totallynotabrony
Zero-ish spoiler summary: After the Alicorn Amulet incident, Trixie is given a choice: go to prison, or work off her sentence by serving in Luna's Royal Guard. It's not a hard choice, but you don't get a plum posting by being a conscript...
A few thoughts: There's a lot of good narrative humor in this story ("The island was in a rough D shape and had been formed when a hurricane decided it didn't like the way a peninsula was looking at it") and opens with a nice ("nice") picture of what Trixie's life is like working a patrol beat in a tiny, insular nowhere. However, it quickly transitions to a mystery/investigation story, and unfortunately, that proves a much weaker avenue to explore: the investigation is very straightforward, low-engagement stuff, and (suggestions that there might actually be an apocalyptic cult involved notwithstanding) there's never any particular sense of urgency or importance to drive events forward. The story is still breezy and enjoyable enough, but it feels awfully insubstantial.
Recommendation: If you're looking for something light, funny, and straightforward, this would be worth a look. If you're looking for anything that will give its Mystery tag a workout or which dives deeper into its characters than one or two key traits, this is probably not for you.
Callidus and the Mystery of Magic, by Giginss
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When foalsitting an unruly Flurry Heart, Sunburst attempts to get her to sit still for two minutes by telling her the titular legend of the stallion who brought magic to ponykind.
A few thoughts: As those of you who read my reviews regularly already know, I'm a sucker for a good myth-fic. This one, though, didn't do much for me. First off, it never really builds a connection between its framing device (Sunburst and Flurry) and the legend itself; the former seems to serve no purpose other than to be a framing device--and that being the case, it feels like an unnecessary distraction from the meat of the fic. That meat, meanwhile, does have a certain unbowdlerized sense of realism to it, but it still feels weak as a fable; for me, the biggest problem is that Callidus's success doesn't rely on his cleverness, his strength, or even his purity, but instead seems to be entirely down to luck. That, combined with the fact that this is an explainer fable rather than a message fable, means that the whole thing lacks anything in the way of moral or even just takeaway.
Recommendation: While I can see a lot of folks reading this and not disliking it, I also think most readers would find it themeless enough to stop them from really enjoying it. If you like the style of fairytales but not the classic purpose or design, this might be worth investigating, though.