Monday, June 5, 2017

Mini-Reviews Round 188

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.


  1. I've seen 81 Days panned by others who, I think, were put off by the cynical realism of the ex-Equestrian world, so I'm pleasantly surprised to see you come down in my camp of "Shut up, it's fucking awesome". :V

    If you haven't read 80 Days 'Til the World's Farthest Shore, you absolutely should, because it's the one story from that contest I liked more than 81 Days, owing to it being what I look for in good gateway fic.

    1. 81 Days was positively excellent, one of the best I've read in a while. What's more, I take it as (completed, as opposed to The Lies We Tell to Children) proof positive that TGaPJ is able to write both an argument and a story at the same time, and do it very well, when he shows an interest in doing so. I'm a bit sad it didn't get the full Fandom Classic treatment though, since this will be buried a bit in comparison.

      Besides which, WWI and the transition from the world before to after is a subject I find particularly fascinating, and I think it often makes for better fiction than WWII; while the latter isn't starkly, perfectly clear good vs. clear evil, it's a lot closer, and when looking at actual partisans for each side it's a lot harder to build nuance. Which is topical, since I think that's something that was to the benefit of (just released) Wonder Woman, even if the decision was actually made to put more distance between it and Captain America.

    2. Thanks for the Farthest Shore rec, just finished and it was more than worth the read. Probably stronger in sentiment than 81 Days, and it left me with a far stronger desire for more, but also the sort of thing that was as much about impression as story. I might reverse your order, but even if Horizon's challenge yielded only these two of comparable quality, it proved fertile ground indeed.

    3. One of the issues I had with it while editing and still have with a lot of Jax's writing is one I've only recently come to terms with - he has an unfortunate habit of projection and forcing characters to behave certain ways to serve the story, even if they don't fit. I was pleased to see he had Twilight break from her original inability to compromise.

      I do agree that it's his best story to date, and the cynicism is part of that.

      Also I basically wrote a couple very well-received scenes so I'm allowed to not be humble :3

  2. That last one is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, where a story misuses or makes absolutely no use out of its framing device.

    At the risk of repeating things you already know, since it may well be captured in the synopsis or author's notes of Jaxie's story: There is an online game based on the novel that horizon was very impressed by. He liked the way it created an atmosphere of there being amazing experiences available that must sometimes be sacrificed to meet the overarching goal. I haven't played the game or read the novel, but I entered the event anyway, and while it's more a concept fic than a compelling narrative, horizon found it had a very interesting point to make, one he'd never seen from a travelogue before. Anyway, that all means that it's enough to have a general knowledge of how the novel goes, but you didn't need to know anything specific about it or the game to write something for the event or understand the entries. They all stand alone well to someone who knows just a one-sentence summary of the novel's (or game's) premise.