Monday, October 2, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 230: Twilight Sparkle of the Royal Guard

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

Hey, just so you all know: an anthology that I wrote a chapter for is getting its last ducks in a row, and will likely drop on FiMFiction in the near-ish future.  Dollars to doughnuts, it'll literally be the day of the FiM movie premier and nobody will care... but you'll care, won't you?  So keep your eyes on this blog, and I'll let you know when you can finally sate your unending lust for more Chrisfic (plus, some other guys' horsewords, I guess).

Until then, you'll just have to tide yourself over with Chrisnonfic.  Head down below the break for my review of Twilight Sparkle of the Royal Guard, by King of Beggars.

Impressions before reading:  This looks like a pretty straightforward "one change" kind of AU, to wit: what if Shining Armour was Celestia's personal student instead of Twilight?  Those are my favorite types of AU, generally, and this story in particular has been recommended to me on the basis of its showcasing how familiar characters would act and think in roles which are unfamiliar to the reader, but are all they themselves know.  The romance tag has me a little worried--if Twilight and Cadence are being shipped, that does open the possibility that this is more of a "there was one change, but everything still went exactly the same, and Twilight is literally just Shining Armour (purple girl edition)" type of AU fic, which is definitely not my prefered form.  We'll see.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Just days before the Summer Sun Celebration, newly-minted legionnaire Twilight Sparkle is given an unexpected promotion, and an even more unexpected duty: she's been assigned personal guardianship of Princess Cadence, who is leaving Canterlot by airship forthwith.  But both ponies suspect there's more to Celestia's sudden maneuvering than they're being told, and in any case they soon find themselves embroiled in trouble of their own choosing...

Thoughts after reading:  I'm pleased to report, the person who recommended this to me didn't sell me a bill of goods: Royal Guard is an AU that, despite its rough spots, really does take its premise some interesting places.  And more importantly, it uses those places to show us how Twilight (and, to a lesser extent, a few other characters) would be changed by facing different life circumstances.

But let's talk about those rough spots first.  Gotta eat your veggies before you get your dessert, after all.

Aside from a few isolated editing mistakes, the technical writing on this piece is fairly solid.  But the one writing-specific area that really brings it down is in PoV.  The author has a tendency to skip around various ponies' heads, even as each chapter section is nominally from one character's perspective.  I'm inclined to suspect that this is rooted in a fic-wide tendency to over-explain things; while not done to an unbearable degree, this is a story that tends to very carefully set all its ducks in a row, and hopping into a pony's head for a sentence or three to make their thoughts or feelings explicit is par for the course in this regard.

But again, this over-explaining isn't overdone to a truly burdensome level, and I otherwise found the writing effective and enjoyable.  Beggars shows a keen knack for timing, using asides and "downtime" conversations or events to space more dramatic moments while using those smaller moments to build on the theme of destiny which pervades the story.  No, the bigger problem was the romance.

To be fair, it wasn't for the reasons I feared.  Although Twilight does, in some ways, slot into Shining Armour's show role (and although Shining Armour very much slots into Twilight's), this is done deliberately, and is fruitfully explored by the story itself.  So the problem isn't that Twilight hooks up with Cadence because that's what Shiny would've done.  No, the problem is that the romance is so very, very trite and cliche.  This is slightly redeemed by Cadence getting a chance to discuss crushes (Princess of Love), and laying out a more palatable framework for the fawning, but that's promptly tossed overboard again so that the story can instead spend its shipping-related time on "adorable" blushing, cue-missing, flirting, and the other paint-by-numbers-ish pieces of a love story.  Moreover, that keen sense of pacing I praised above notably vanishes when the romance rears its head, as (for example) when Princess Cadence asks Twilight if they can stop and get some rest--when they are literally minutes away from their target location, and if they fall asleep before they get there, they will die, and they know both of these things--because she wants to talk about their feelings for one another.

This would be enough to sink some stories.  But here, while the romance (or rather, the way it's presented) may be a disappointment, it's also largely a self-contained disappointment.  That is to say, almost nothing in this story hinges on Twilight's crush on Cadence other than the romantic plotline itself, and so its triteness doesn't destroy the underpinnings of the mission they're being sent on, or Twilight's feelings toward her brother, or their investigations, or what have you.  It also doesn't hurt that for most of the story (until the last chapter, really), that crush is rarely brought up at all.

A related issue is how the story concludes.  Royal Guard's climax comes with something like a quarter of the fic--20k-ish words--still left to come.  A long denouement isn't necessarily a bad thing, and there are some vital scenes here that merit it... but a great chunk of it is spent on sequel-bait and depressingly jejune flirtatiousness.  This isn't quite a case where there's no reason for the story to be as long as it is--but I nevertheless found myself impatient for the author to wrap it up well before "the end" rolled around.

But having said that, this is still a fic with a lot of brilliant stuff going on in it.  Most obviously, there's the action/adventure; while Beggars is sparing with his descriptions of combat, such fight scenes as there are are more vivid by virtue of their rarity, and they do a good job of capturing an uneasy mix of terror and excitement.  The settings are vivid throughout, and even though the story itself is pretty straightforward, there are a few revelations along the way that are interesting in their own right, as Diamond Dog culture and magic take center stage.

And as far as the AU itself goes, I was very happy with the way the changes emanating from that one "twist of fate" were explored.  Royal Guard looks at destiny from a few different angles, showing its characters seeming vaguely aware that something has gone wrong in their lives... but also tells us that fate is mutable, and that we have the ability and responsibility to write our own destinies.  It's a message that gets a surprisingly nuanced delivery, with bits and pieces coming from different characters and the overarching adventure narrative reinforcing it along the way.  In the end, we see that a lot of things would be the same in an Equestria where Shiny and Twily more-or-less switched roles... but two things that absolutely wouldn't be the same are Shiny and Twily themselves.  This is a story about who those two could have been, and it's such a full, believable, and convincing picture that it's a delight to see the author's take on it.

Star rating:

Most of the time, I'm not particularly fond of doing the star ratings... but sometimes, they're really handy.  Like in this case, when I can use "this story was near the 3/4 border" to indicate that, although I spent much of the review criticising rather than praising, the strengths were strong enough, and the weaknesses minor and/or self-contained enough, not to destroy my goodwill toward this fic.

Recommendation:  If you enjoy "what if?" stories or adventure/exploration, you'll want to check this out.  It's not for those sensitive to stock shipping, though, and readers wary of ending fatigue might find that this story lingers on kisses and buildup to book two too much for their tastes.

Next time:  Ditzy Do’s Dismally Derpy Day, by CLAVDIVS CAESAR


  1. I really enjoyed the story this is about, so I'm biased towards it, but this review is also pretty good. I probably wouldn't find the romance as good as I remember it since I was so invested while reading it the first time.

    I think the sequel is worth checking out too, and it's finished.

    Interestingly, the way you talked about the romance in this one is how I feel about the romance in Beggars' Sunset Shimmer fic. That's a great fic too but the romance feels very forced, especially at the start.

  2. Your description was enough to get me to read the whole thing. I quite liked the story, actually! It was fascinating how Beggars explored the changed relationship between Twilight and Shining Armor. The way the idea of fate was handled was both subtle and tasteful. The diamond dog culture was, as you said, very well developed, and I lapped up every word of it.

    On the other hand, I pretty much had the same issues that you did, particularly with the shipping aspect of the story. The romance was trite at best and distractingly irrelevant at worst. It got to the point where in the very last chapter, I found myself skimming and scrolling any time Cadance and Twilight had a scene together.

    Still, I liked the story enough to take a look at the sequel. Any issues I had with the romance were multiplied tenfold, as the number of interactions between Cadance and Twilight increased and their relationship was incorporated into the actual plot. The whole twist of fate aspect was much less central to the story, and large chunks of every chapter were just Twilight and Cadance making innuendo or being sickeningly sweet with each other.

    After binge reading almost 200 thousand words in less than a day, I'd have to say that I stick by your recommendation of the original, and I would have to tell anyone who had issues with the romance to say far away from the sequel.