Friday, September 1, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 226: Through the Well of Pirene

To read the story, click the image or follow this link.

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.

Star rating:

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


  1. Chris.


    This is not a two-star story. Come on. :(

    1. To be fair, there are several stories RCL has featured that I thought were seriously flawed and would have voted against, were I still a member. And many RCL features have people in the comments saying they didn't like the story. Heck, probably everything in the RCL has downvotes. People just don't like things sometimes.

      That said, based on the tone of the review, I was expecting 3 stars, maybe edging up to 4.

    2. For all that my long comment below focused on the negatives (which are more discrete and amenable to discussion than the positives), I agree. On finishing, I was expecting very strong 3 to very weak 5. With more of my own reflection, that got shaded down a bit to strong 3 to 4.

      But in any case, it's a story where there's real potential to push people's buttons, and it's not hard for me to see that, in extreme cases, counterbalancing a lot of the excellent aspects of Pirene.

    3. Imma have to take some time tonight to respond to this in detail.

    4. As I've commented before, rating long stories is hard. In any epic-length fic, there will invariably be some really cringy, poorly-executed moments--and there will almost always be some brilliantly evocative bits as well.

      I think contrasting this to a story I rated very highly, Jetfire's It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door, is instructive of how I ended up approaching the dilemma. Both stories have some questionable elements; "Why didn't they contact Celestia?" is an obvious one in DB. But, besides the fact that DB's poor decisions represent a much smaller total number of words (and fraction of the fic itself), there's also the fact that its errors are mostly self-contained. "Why didn't the contact Celestia" niggles at the first couple chapters, and at the return to Ponyville chapter, but doesn't directly interfere with one's ability to enjoy the larger story; once Dash, AJ, and Rarity are off, the question (for them) becomes academic. Compare that with something like, say, "Why is Naomi's abuse and narcissistic obsession with self-gratification never acknowledged," which sours her initial introduction... but also poisons all her subsequent appearances in the story, casting her actions in Ponyville in a disturbingly hedonistic light and making her part in the (first) epilogue read as horrific in its misanthropy. But even more than that, it feeds the "Daphne is treated as less than human by every force, internal and external," which makes her entire second-half arc (especially the way she disappears as a character and becomes a simple plot device) read like a horror fic.

      So, how did I come up with two stars? Because there's a big chunk of this story--call it a significant minority--that I'd consider clear-cut one-star material by my rating scale (and by my reading, obviously, which I hope I've done enough to lay out), and a textual majority that can't be fully appreciated precisely because it's directly, unavoidably weakened by the minority.

      Hope that clarifies where the two stars came from. As always with big fics, I had a lot to cover, and there's a constant question of how much you should detail your examples in order to make clear to a prospective reader whether they might or might not be on board with the story, without just turning the review into a summary of the fic's plot.

  2. I will first state that I have not read this story. It's far too long for me in terms of opportunity cost on all the reading I have to do and the little time I actually take to write. So I can't speak from any authority or experience on this story.

    In fact, I've only read one story by this author, I think, though there may have been a couple short ones from write-offs that I'm forgetting. But I do want to connect something you said with the one story I read, and that's the sentiment that it takes a long time to get going.

    Different readers (and authors, for that matter) have very different tolerances for this kind of slow introduction, where we ease into a world and spend lots of word count doing nothing of consequence. I have a low tolerance for that, but I do concede that the more exposition a story requires, the more this probably needs to happen to make that exposition feel more organic and less like a history textbook.

    So again, using only that single story for support, I think Ether may be the kind of author that prefers and revels in that kind of drawn-out beginning. I read the one story because she asked me for feedback on it, and while I thought it was excellently written in terms of what happens in it and the word crafting, my biggest complaint was that it took 42 pages, about half the story's length, of inconsequential slice of life material until we actually got to what the central conflict would be. And I don't mean seeing it set into motion—I mean even finding out what it was.

    Some amount of that is perfectly fine for us to meet the characters and see how they interact, but I just found myself thinking 42 pages could have been cut down to fewer than 10 without losing anything.

    In the end, I can't say that's wrong. It's just that it doesn't mesh with the kinds of stories I like to read, and I can report that as a data point to the author, but if she does like stories written in that matter, then she's not wrong, and it's up to her whether my data point means anything.

    Anyway, it may just be characteristic of Ether to like these slow-burn beginnings, and while they're not my thing, and I can point to some rational explanations as to why (pacing, story arc shape, etc.), ultimately, it's kind of a personal taste thing. And once I got past that (very) extended beginning, it was a very good story. That's the only point of commonality I'm qualified to discuss, though, as the rest are specific to Pirene.

    1. I do, yes, like slow-burning introductions. I consider it a bit of a flaw.

    2. I'm also interestingly different from you in one substantial way - You said that you don't read stories like this because of the opportunity cost its length entails. I'm exactly the opposite - I hate short stories. I like getting invested in characters and setting, and short stories don't really offer that to the degree I need.

    3. But note that I said opportunity cost in what I have to read, not what I choose to read. If I take on a story of this length, Equestria Daily's queue would get hopelessly backed up.

  3. I think I reacted more favorably (I just finished yesterday), with most of that coming from the middle-sections: there was a several days gap between reading the first couple hundred pages and the rest, and I mentally segregated the epilogues a bit more.

    I thought the world and the story leading up to, but not quite including, the climax were very good, but with some persistent drawbacks. I didn't pick up on the Naomi issues quite as much, and swallowed Marcus's inclusion fairly quickly for all that his dynamic with Daphne was irking for quite a while. But what was a bit harder was 1) Amelia's personality works fine, but she frankly comes across as an intellectual genius with an incredibly comprehensive range of knowledge for someone her age, in a story where that's not really needed as her defining factor (closer to "Narnia" than "Ender's Game"--note the same is perhaps to a lesser extent true of Daphne, but if so primarily buried in the past, and knowledge is better spread among her group of three); 2) maybe I misread something, but for a long stretch of the story every time she brought up Rainbow I was brought out of the flow because of just what lengths she had to go to project her feelings re: Daphne onto RD and treat her with incomparably less charity than the other five; 3) occasional but persistent jarring diction and syntax, particularly around the word "nor" (used in ways I don't expect Americans to regularly use it, and by Sweetie Belle in ways I'm almost certain she never has), and bafflingly "gaoler" from Amelia. (Also, "batpony" referring to Luna's guard ponies, which should never, ever, EVER happen.)

    At a higher level, I thought Amelia's chapters began going downhill roughly once she got off on her own. Especially during the rapid escalation on her side, there reached a point when a lot of what she had going on in plot terms seemed pro forma to me, and not really worth seeing from her perspective since it didn't seem to develop her character much, either.

    I think I felt better about Daphne's trajectory than you, in the sense that it was driven in part by the escalation of events so far beyond their starting point focused on her lost sister. That said, (SPOILER) I was disappointed by the degree to which her deal switched from imagination to prophesy. That seemed to not only diminish one of the things that made her a unique and interesting character early on, but to potentially sour those earlier sections by raising the question of if it was even her imagination at all, or just visions she didn't know were such. That feeds into one of the things about the climax which fell flat for me: Daphne’s kind of written out of it. She doesn’t play a direct role in getting through to her sister, in fixing things afterward (which also took a bit of a cop-out direction of “nothing’s changing but everything’s changing”), and imagination went entirely out the window. Having her show up and offer guidance from time to time felt a bit like shoehorning her in to a plot line she’d been removed from. I believe that instead following her in her battle with the Morgwyn would have been a better decision. (/SPOILER)

    The late-story direction taken re: Amelia and Celestia was likewise somewhat ill-received on my part, especially once we get to the epilogues. Now there was some complete self-abnegation. So yeah, while one of our three viewpoint characters merely grows organically into a better person, two are fundamentally and directly changed by external forces into things they weren’t, and lost much of what they were along the way.

    All that said, I think the good outweighed the bad here. The distribution towards the ends of the story (more so the end than the beginning for me) was unfortunate, but the severability—the epilogues and specific Amelia chapters are where I find most of the problems lie—helps a bit, in that it feels like a better story than the whole, with unnecessary additions weighing parts down.

  4. Gonna be honest, I loved this story even though I agree with a Chris on some of his points (slow burn intro, oddly drawn-out climax with several crazy plot points seemingly introduced from nowhere).

    I would have rated this story a strong four.

  5. Wow. Given all the other people singing this story's praises, I wasn't expecting such a low rating. You can still surprise me sometimes, Chris.