Friday, November 3, 2017

Mini-Reviews Round 208

After I was nice to Skywriter in my last review (I called him "an author I've had a lot of good luck with!"), I was reminded that he writes plenty of things other than ponyfic, and that a lot of his drabbles are on his Scrivnarium blog.  So I pop over there, and sure enough, there's some nice stuff (I particularly like this poem about the intersection of modern and mythological security)... but there's also a LotR fanfic.  And I swear, Skywriter must have written it specifically to trigger me, because it is the most deliberately-rage-inducing thing I've read in a while.  It is genuinely impressive how much he managed to do wrong, in just the right way.  Go check it out--you'll probably get a laugh out of it if you don't take your Tolkien too seriously, and you'll probably end up twitching with pent-up aggression if you do.  Either way!

And after that, go check out some short reviews, below the break.  Only two this week, but they're both long'ns, so there ya go.

Animal Friends, by Elkia Deerling

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Fluttershy is accidentally transported into Radagast the Brown's neck of the (Mirk)woods.  While Twilight and the girls try to get her back, she finds a kindred spirit--and finds herself situated in a very dangerous part of Middle-Earth's history.

A few thoughts:  Speaking of Tolkien, here's a crossover!  I'll start with the negative, and say that this wasn't really the story I was hoping it would be for a few reasons.  First, it's clearly based on the movies more than the books (when it comes to Radagast's personality I can forgive that, since he doesn't have a personality in the books, but in terms of the larger environment, or the approach to presenting violence... it's clear this isn't the literary crossover I was hoping it was).  Related to that, the writing style and presentation are far removed from Tolkien.  And finally, there are a lot of things that just kind of get tossed in one's lap without any explanation--this is a story that requires a fair bit of reader buy-in, from beginning to end, to avoid losing one's suspension of disbelief (I found myself sorely challenged in this regard early on by a tie-in to the author's previous story about Frodo in Equestria).  But those are mostly comments about what kind of story I wanted to read, not how this story does at what it sets out to do.  Viewed through that lense, this is a relatively low-key adventure fic that expands on Fluttershy a bit while putting her in an environment that's both relatively comfortable(-for-her) and exciting.  There's still a fair amount of fiat here, but certainly no more than the average true crossover story almost has to have.

Recommendation:  If, like me, you're looking for Tolkien, this fic will leave you disappointed.  But if you're intrigued by the idea of Fluttershy dealing with this-or-that while hanging out with Wizard!Fluttershy, this story executes its core premise competently.

Hive Versus Hive, by Impossible Numbers

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Seabreeze the breezie just wants to stay home with his family--or so he says.  But when adventure comes to the hive, he isn't just thrust into it against his will... he also seems to be more in his element than he ever was playing board games in his hut.

A few thoughts:  In my notes on this story, I jotted down "basically the opposite of aragon."  Lack of capitalization in my notes aside, I think that's actually a pretty good description of this fic.  Aragon's stories (or rather, his most famous ones; I'm thinking of Daring DONE! and the like, which aren't really his best fics) aren't terribly well-written in terms of sentence structure or construction, but they have a breezy effortlessness to them which makes them easy to plough through without losing any meaning or muddling any of the jokes.  Hive Versus Hive, by contrast, is almost aggressively accurate in its writing; I'm not just talking about spelling and grammar, but technical stuff like the order in which elements of the setting are described always matching classic processing patterns.  Consider this passage:
Dozens of Breezies hovered all around him; he could feel the slight curls through the air as they disturbed it just by being there. Cheeps and chirps slid easily through his mind while it scanned each note as clearly as if it were a solo among silence. Scents and perfumes that would pass by a bigger nose bumped and punched and caressed and tapped his smaller one. All his other senses were sucking in the world around him, taking it apart, and gorging on it. Nothing would escape his attention.
It's well-written and evocative without being turgid, but it's got a density of information that makes it very, well, dense.  That's a fine fit for a lot of the setting elements of the story; Impossible Numbers fills his fic with complex, three-dimensional antagonists, well-realized bits of breezie ecology, and the like.  But the actual plot is pretty straightforward--not in a bad way, but its relative simplicity makes for quite a contrast to the construction and setting.  For my part, I found that to be a mild detriment to my enjoyment; if the plot had left more motivations opaque or more long-running ambiguity to chew over, I think that would have been a more natural fit for a story that all but precludes skimming by its very structure.  But despite that, I do have a soft spot for breezies and for mythological inspirations, and taking in the incompetence of seemingly everyone but Seabreeze at every turn (and seeing him grudgingly accept his own competence) didn't get old.

Recommend:  This is a good choice for fans of writing on a technical level, and for breezie bros (I believe the female equivalent is "pollen sisters").  It might put off those who find dense writing slow to parse, however.


  1. "A.U.: No Gimli"

    Gimli, no gimling.



    Obviously, the word is "brozies".

  2. First of all, I am inordinately pleased that you reviewed one of my fics! While I don't comment very often, I do read several of your reviews and have long looked forward to an opportunity like this. If nothing else, I remember your comments from the Lapidify feature in January as particularly useful in identifying what worked in that fic. Analytical comments like those are the gold standard as far as I'm concerned. So if nothing else, there's that.

    As for the review itself...

    Much as I acknowledge this kind of review is meant to be short, so it obviously can't go into much detail, I'll confess I'm somewhat disappointed. Most obviously, the digression on the technical writing aspect feels disproportionate. Granted, I get the not insignificant point you want to convey - that it was a major factor in your (lack of) enjoyment of the fic - but at a rough guess, I had to go through 60-70% of that paragraph waiting for a comment on anything else.

    And while I absolutely must put inevitable personal bias up front before I say this... it's not that dense, is it? Tolkien's a pretty dense writer, and I thought I was nowhere near that level.

    OK, I'll admit the idea was that I painted a picture of the setting, explored character psychology and behaviours, sprinkled world-building touches to flesh out the setting, and tried to keep the pace at a steady escalation to keep people's interest. But I thought two or three thousand words would be a reasonable length to cover each major plot point. I was aware throughout of the risk of floweriness. I did trim things.

    That the result is a thicket – and not a well-measured garden – is more than a little disconcerting, especially when I can't see the effect myself. And especially, especially when the last thing I wanted to do was fall into the opposite trap of leaving stuff out and rushing things and generally writing too shallow. I'm not saying I didn't commit a crime; I'm saying I honestly didn't even notice I did.

    Moving on, though, because I absolutely must address this:

    "And yet, the effect is to make a rather uncomplicated invasion/adventure tale feel very dense. For my part, I found that to be a detriment to my enjoyment; the way the fic is designed almost demands attentive reading, but the actual content isn't particularly deep or layered."

    On the previous issue, at least if you twisted my arm, I could admit I'm leaning towards purple prose a bit. But this particular point bothered me a lot more, because it was utterly antithetical to my aim.

    What I thought I was doing, and what I set out to do, was:

    1. 1. Flesh out the world of the breezies in multiple dimensions: domestic life, societal function, ecology, languages, politics and power relations, how the world functions, the purpose of the migrations into the Big World, etc. The aim was to make a world which was rich enough in detail to feel you could easily set further stories in it.

      2. Depict the complexities of both negotiation and hostilities, hence the recurring theme of Seabreeze trying to work out when to be "nice" and when to be "tough". This was crucial because I didn't want it to collapse simplistically one way or the other.

      3. Utterly, utterly avoid depicting either side as black-and-white, as stereotypically uniform, or as straightforward in motivation. Even the closest thing I have to a villain - Dragon Lily - was supposed to come across as being simultaneously altruistic (to her hive, at least) and self-interested.

      4. Include multiple elements of fey/elven folklore and mythology into the setting, sometimes as actual folklore and mythology rather than necessarily as literal history. For instance, every species depicted in the last few chapters is based on an existing species of fey or elf in real-world folklore. More obviously, the precursor Fey Ponies were designed to be ambiguous: maybe real history, maybe invented mythology.

      5. Do all this while presenting both sides as having (at least some) legitimate points about the flaws of their opponents. Jingo Belle's arrogance and Burningrose's introduction in particular were meant to highlight this.

      6. Do all this while depicting a flawed and muddling hero out of his depth who still manages to rise admirably if realistically (within the fantasy setting) to the challenge. Seabreeze in particular is just as much lucky and dependent on others as he is resourceful and independent. Heck, his initial escape from the Flutter Ponies was actually orchestrated by his wife!

      So with that in mind, it is worrying to hear that the content is "uncomplicated". That's the exact opposite of what I was aiming for. In particular, the suggestion that "everyone except Seabreeze is incompetent" is a bad sign, as that runs counter to points 6, 5, and possibly 2. The situation was meant to be a lot more complicated than that - even Seabreeze was supposed to make mistakes or find himself out of his depth multiple times.

      If you're willing, would you please - however succinctly you wish, as I do know I can go on a bit - suggest where you think I most likely went wrong on this? I'd be very interested to find the problem here, because it seems to me to be something fundamental that I just can't ignore.

      Thank you again for the unexpected and (potentially) tremendously helpful review and critique! Although in all honesty, I had hoped to perform a lot better than this. I can only invoke lack of experience as an excuse.

      Thanks again!

    2. You're very welcome! Though I fear I must not have written a very good review, as it seems that I've managed to say a few things I didn't actually intend D:

      To start with the prose: I definitely don't consider it "purple." When I described it as aggressively correct and dense, I was referring to passages like this one, near the start of chapter two:

      "Dozens of Breezies hovered all around him; he could feel the slight curls through the air as they disturbed it just by being there. Cheeps and chirps slid easily through his mind while it scanned each note as clearly as if it were a solo among silence. Scents and perfumes that would pass by a bigger nose bumped and punched and caressed and tapped his smaller one. All his other senses were sucking in the world around him, taking it apart, and gorging on it. Nothing would escape his attention."

      The way it moves through every sense but sight in turn (even landing subtly on taste at the end); the pattern, best appreciated when read aloud, created by the repeated use of alliteration; the use of physical descriptors in the passage on scent blurring the distinction between senses; it's not overly flowery or crammed full of adverbs, it's just dense. That was one of the passages I highlighted, but it's really not an unusual one by any stretch. Hive is a story that's full of that kind of prose, and what I was trying to communicate in my review is that if you were to try to skim through passages like that you'd find it rather difficult to extract as much meaning as you could from skimming a more simply-written story.

    3. The matter of whether the story is deep/layered I didn't explain well; I'm going to blame that on me making my mini-review too -mini. What I was trying to communicate was that the adventure itself was pretty straightforward, even when there was a lot going on in the fic itself. By way of comparison, I'd say it's a bit like Dany's post-Drogo, pre-Meereen arc in ASoIaF. During that arc, there's a lot of complex stuff going on in Dany's world; she's dealing with traitorous advisors, perfidious leaders, and is confronting fundamental issues about her own priorities and sense of ethics. But the actual series of events she goes through is pretty straightforward, and doesn't necessitate a lot of high-level decision-making on her part. She traverses the Red Waste because going any other direction seems like a worse bet; she accepts the hospitality of Xaro because he seems genuinely helpful and she desperately needs allies; she brings down the House of the Undying because they try to kill(?) her and steal her dragon; etc. It's a straightforward adventure/travel arc from the funeral pyre to Meereen, even if other elements of the story are complicated.

      Of course, once she gets to Meereen, things famously become complicated in every regard. But in any case, Hive is a story with a lot of complicated things going on in terms of its politics and mythological references, but the actual "What the breezies are doing, and how they go about deciding what to do" ends up being pretty straightforward throughout the story. Yes, he learns more about, say, the flutter-ponies' motives, but what specifically he needs to do, and the means by which he can best try to accomplish it, all end up being pretty uncomplicated.

      I don't think that's a bad thing, any more than I think that part of the Dany arc was bad! But it did feel a bit disconnected from the text, to me; the writing gives the reader a lot to pick over and infer, and things like the details of the setting do likewise, but the plot is much more... well, I keep coming back to the word "straightforward." There's a contrast between those story elements, is what I'm getting at.

      Anyway, I'm going to edit my review now to try and straighten up what I meant to say. I hope this comment makes my thoughts a little clearer; if not, let me know! I'd much rather make myself clear than leave a half-elucidated thought to niggle.

      And thanks for the detailed comment, and for all the background! I appreciate you putting the time in to talk about your story, and I'm sorry my review came out as ambiguous as it obviously did.

    4. I AM HERE NOW.


    5. To Chris: First, I apologize if I came across as excessive in my previous posts. Fair's fair, I suspect I overreacted a little to the review, in which case I hope this reply is a little calmer and slightly less jumpy.

      I wasn't expecting you to edit the review in response, but it's very magnanimous of you nonetheless. Although as a side effect, you are making me blush like crazy. I can only thank you for your unexpected but delightful gesture. :)

      Regarding the inconsistency between the style/setting and the plot, I see what you mean more clearly now. I don't agree with it for specific cases in the fic, but on the whole, it's not a point I could easily argue against. After all, the Flutter Ponies do remain antagonists throughout, regardless of the complexities of the situation, and Seabreeze only really has one quest throughout, which is to drive them off. Apart from your examples of ambiguities and mystery, I think a complex plot would require more curveballs, subversions, and plot twists. Your main point there has certainly got me thinking.

      Overall, I see two possible solutions for future writing of this nature - either simplify the style to better fit the direct story, or add twistier, more uncertain, and more complex story elements to justify the demands for reading attention. I'd probably lean towards the former, to be honest, since I suspect I need to cut down in some areas of my writing and trim more thoroughly.

      As it happens, I'm working on a project for NaPoWriMo this month, so I should be able to incorporate your advice here into my work there. (The timing is very fortuitous. And fortunate, of course!) All in all, I must say I'm immensely gratified to have had this discussion in the comments. Thank you!

      To Aragon: Go home, Aragon. You're drun - uh, you're ston - you're ins - You're YOU.

  3. "The Staves of the Istari" falls into that uncomfortable area of trollfic that feels just a bit too serious, too almost played straight to really enjoy. So I guess better at actual trolling.