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And so, here we have my review of the fourth-longest story I've read to date, narrowly edging out The Life and Times of a Winning Pony, and slotting in behind Background Pony, Fallout:Equestria, and Project Horizons. Interestingly (well, interestingly to me, anyway), those five stories represent nearly 15% of the wordcount that I've reviewed on this blog, despite my having reviewed over 1000 fics to date.
It really drives home how long some of the fandom's epics are, compared to "fanfiction" as a whole. But let's zero in on today's fic! Head down below the break to check out my review of Ether Echoes' Through the Well of Pirene.
Impressions before reading: This story comes highly recommended from some pretty reliable sources; the Royal Canterlot Library even featured it not too long ago, though I didn't read it at the time (it's a long fic! The other curators beat me to it!). I've heard from several people who quit early on it, though--apparently the opening doesn't do a great job of drawing everyone in. I'll be reading the whole thing regardless, of course, but it'll be interesting to see if that assessment of the beginning is accurate, and if so, where "the good part" starts.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: When Daphne was a child, she was friends with a magical unicorn who lived in the forest near her home. But with the passage of time (and a bit of therapy), she's come to realize that Liet Motif was never really real.
Then one day, her sister is kidnapped in that same forest, and a strangely-proportioned man turns her into a talking pony. With the help of her friends, she'll have to travel to a world she's only ever heard of, and one she'd convinced herself was entirely imaginary. Meanwhile, her sister faces her own trials in the strange land, and her and Daphne's importance to it and all worlds threatens to overwhelm them, even as figures from legend and beyond legend try to steer the changing of an age.
Thoughts after reading: "Where does 'the good part' start" turns out to be a difficult question to answer. It's certainly fair to say that the beginning isn't going to be many readers' cup of tea, starting as it does by laboriously demonstrating that Daphne is a petulant and unpleasant teen, and her sister Amelia is a typical 8-year old, with all the lack of empathy and perspective that entails. One could argue that "the good part" starts around chapter four, when we first start getting to see hints of the deeper story, but I found that problems seeded in those early chapters continued to wreck major story elements and sour large stretches of the fic well past that.
Let's start by talking about that "deeper story," though, because it's inarguably Pirene's biggest selling point. Although it might start out looking like a slightly gussied-up HiE premise, the author actually takes the reader on a trip through a whole universe based heavily on multiple mythic traditions (Norse and Greek stand out particularly in the names and characters chosen, but they are far from the only ones represented). This universe is almost painfully opaque for a good chunk of the fic, but for the best possible reason: because the focus characters don't know anything about it either, and the characters they talk to who do know anything either don't want to spill the beans, or don't realize just how adrift the people/ponies they're talking to are. It was somewhere in the middle of the fic that I realized everything had started making (enough) sense, all learned organically through characters exploring, arguing, and interacting, without any sort of lore dumps. It was at that point that I realized just how cleverly, and almost invisibly, Echoes had portioned out information about a setting that required a lot of background to fully appreciate.
And when the elements borne of that setting are at the story's forefront, Pirene shines. The tarot-based magics of the goblins, the fey rules that govern them and their between-worlds city, the whole character of their society and their varied and vibrant personalities, are endlessly surprising and engaging.
Separately, but also on the subject of things done well, the author shows a great talent for writing broken characters in miserable and/or dramatic situations. This is most obvious with Daphne in the first half of the book and her sister in the second (sidenote: although it's understated, the juxtaposition of Daphne's increasing passivity with Amelia's growing aggression really helps them play off one another), but is also a recurring theme with various major and minor characters: that whether it's expressed through withdrawal or by lashing out, we are defined by our flaws. Where most authors would look at that, decide it was too much of a downer, and tack a "but we don't need to be" on it ("you can overcome your own brokenness if you just try hard enough!"), Ether instead makes a compelling case that that isn't the case; that the only way to overcome a hurt is to first have it healed.
But while trauma and drama may be well-executed here, day-to-day life and comedy are... less so. Tragically, the particular failures in this area also snowball into long-running character issues that mar other parts of the story which might seem perfectly apropos in a vacuum. The clunky paint-by-numbers trio of Daphne and her two companions is played almost parodically initially (I still can't decide whether "Look, Daphne, your ex-boyfriend is coming with us whether you like it or not" is meant to be taken seriously in the moment, or whether it's supposed to be winkingly mocking YA lit which would clumsily shove the spunky female lead together with her gun-totin', smart-alec ex on the flimsiest of pretenses. And frankly, I'm not sure which would be the less charitable reading), but spending over 50,000 words establishing their behaviours and patterns before Things Get Serious means that this isn't just a couple of jokey lines from chapter one that can be glossed over--there's a whole novel's worth of material that paints later events in a terribly unpleasant light.
And frankly, a lot of those events look pretty terrible to begin with. Daphne, besides worrying about her sister, is having a pretty severe identity crisis about being turned into a horse (and having no idea if it's permanent, and realizing that the last decade or so of her life has been living a lie...), and turns to one of her only friends for support... only for Naomi to, essentially, treat her as a toy. I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but looking back through my notes I see highlight after highlight of Naomi ignoring Daphne's plans, brushing off her concerns, treating her body like property, emotionally manipulating her for selfish or petty reasons, and generally being the definition of a sociopathic narcissist. Much of this is played for laughs--but there's never any counter to it, even in the "serious" parts of the story (if there is a single instance of Naomi deferring to Daphne, and not just of the two of them happening to be in agreement, I was unable to find it), and this sense of Naomi as a creature of headstrong self-indulgence colors all her interactions. It's hard not to notice, say, that every time she "comforts" Daphne, it appears to be an excuse to stroke her mane which tends to lack non-physical empathy cues.
This sort of problem is by no means limited to Daphne, though, nor is it limited only to character interpretation. Many of these issues seep into the story's themes themselves, generally to deleterious effect. When Daphne learns she needs to "trust her instincts," it's clearly meant to be read as her growing into her mantle as water-pourer... but against the backdrop of her loss of identity when she transformed, the way her opinions are regularly discounted by her friends, the way even Twilight infantilizes her... with all that as context, it's rather hard to read it as anything other than Daphne "learning" the ultimate abnegation of self. I'm sure this isn't a theme the author meant to write, since it stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the story, but "Daphne's sense of self is slowly strangled from her by those she trusts, and she ultimately realizes that even within her own mind she must surrender her own ideas and opinions in favor of the ideas and opinions of the outside world" comes through loud and clear in her "growth," and changes in behaviour, and this is a reading heavily supported by her first-half-of-the-story interactions.
So when does "the good part" begin? One answer would be never; there are systemic issues which sour this fic all the way through its over-40,000-words-of-quote-unquote-epilogue ("epilogue" is here apparently used to mean "anything that happens after the climax"). But that's an uncharitable reading, and an inaccurate one, to boot. Because Amelia's story, despite some missteps in the theme department (without getting into spoilers, "Amelia ultimately gives in to despair, continues to lash out in her pain" is the best-supported reading of her arc, but is obviously not the intended one), is lively and thoughtful from her first visit to "Ponyville" all the way to the end (though it's fair to say it ramps up dramatically come the end of chapter 16, and remains page-turningly exciting through to the climax). There are two layers to her as an unreliable narrator--a trick Echoes uses with other characters as well--with her "obvious" lies to herself concealing a deeper and more nuanced glimpse of her loathing for her own actions, and the increasingly epic scope of the story ratcheting up nicely. Once this part of the story comes, Daphne and co.'s parts of the story pick up the pace just as well, and if they're occasionally held back by issues of the sort I mentioned above, it's fair to say that these remain Pirene's strongest chapters.
Part of this is down to the writing, which is a much better fit for the more epic later tone than for the smaller-scoped, sillier beginnings (Daphne's voice in particular comes off as a continuous humblebrag in places, which might not be an inaccurate tone for a self-conscious teen, but nevertheless is kind of an unappealing one to read). The author has a knack for describing just enough of a place to let the reader fill in the details, mentioning one or two key details of a room or vista with a precision which lets one's imagination do the rest of the work, and freeing the bulk of the verbiage of dialogue, inner thoughts, and action. The grand tone is almost enough to obscure the ridiculously compressed timeframe over which this story takes place ("Becoming a monster isn't a 'hey, I'm going to be evil now' moment, it's a series of little steps, and when you look around you wonder how in Hel it got so dark," one character says of another, when those "little steps" began something like a week ago). Regardless, once the writing and the story style sync up, they make for a terribly appealing combo.
★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
There's at least a novel's worth of words here that I really resented reading, and--even in an epic over 350k words long, where they represent maybe a quarter of the total words tops--that's a lot to ask. And yet, there is so much that Pirene does well, and so much that a forgiving reader might be able to enjoy by forcing themselves to look at it from the right angle, that I can't find it in me to resent the product as a whole. Over the course of its wide-flung adventure, Pirene finds dozens of moments of raw emotional honesty, seat-gripping excitement, and tender thoughtfulness. That these are accompanied by a heaping helping of cliched, stock goofiness and unintended implications may diminish those accomplishments, but it by no means extinguishes them.
Recommendation: If you're not willing to put up with a certain (large) amount of unevenness in your fanfiction, this is not the story for you. But if you're looking for a story which has emotional honesty, grand mythmaking, drama, epic scope, and despite that all a heartwrenchingly personal story at its core... well, as long as you don't mind it not consistently being those things, this is a story for those who value a story for its highest points.
Next time: The Mane Makes The Pony, by MerlosTheMad