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  • 27 weeks

    Celestia and Luna take a "bucket-list" sister vacation while Twilight and her friends struggle to cover the princesses' many royal duties alone.

    Congratulations, Twilight. With Celestia and Luna on their constitutionally mandated vacation, you're in charge of Equestria.

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    4 comments · 738 views
  • 104 weeks
    Fanfiction Reading Update #177

    Content Advisory: Contains unmarked spoilers for Monsters and marked spoilers for Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift

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    4 comments · 580 views
  • 112 weeks
    Fanfiction Reading Update #176

    There’s some slim pickings for this reading update, despite a two month gap. That’s partly because of the holidays, but mainly because of my mom’s stubborn refusal not to sleep in the living room—making fanfic reading (and writing) enormously difficult for me and slowing things to a glacial crawl.

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    1 comments · 343 views
  • 121 weeks
    Fanfiction Reading Update #175

    Advisory: contains unmarked spoilers to Before the Storm: Rise of Firefly.

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    7 comments · 608 views

Fanfiction Reading Update #177 · 10:14pm Mar 31st, 2018

Content Advisory: Contains unmarked spoilers for Monsters and marked spoilers for Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift

It’s been a little while, but I fully expected that. I started a new editing job a few weeks ago and, as one would expect from a full time job, it’s eating up most of my time. Now I can use Glim’s excuse. And, despite being an editing job, it’s not the most fun editing I’ve ever had. I spend all day scanning textbooks into PDFs, transferring and styling them in Word, then sending off the Word file to the InDesign cog in the machine.

Bagel day’s pretty good, though.

Filia Noctis updates twice and it feels disappointing. Rather than carrying on with the initial filly antics of the first chapter, Dash and Twilight's childhood is hastily rushed through with little time or thought given. I guess the author wants to get to the shipping, but then why even bother with the filly stuff if it's not going to be explored at all? Why not just have them meet as teens/adults?

I burn through most of what's left of No One to Remember and, well, it's a "the Pinkie clones were sapient" fanfic. Honestly, I think the TNG episode had a better reveal–and it involved Wesley and the Traveler, so you know that’s not an endorsement of the story’s ending. Discord’s rationale for the whole plot was just incredibly, incredibly weak. Far too weak to really justify things.

The New Life of a Winning Pony updates with Cloud beginning her new job as a consultant and the return of Storm—although sadly not the return of the implied shipping. The fact there are now only two chapters left heavily suggests the birth of the foal (who will almost certainly be an earth pony to keep the drama up) will mark the story’s conclusion. Then it updates again with a frankly boring chapter of them sitting around talking about baby names for 4,000 words. Probability of Storm Dying: 10%.

Going into Monsters, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had assumed, based on the synopsis, it was an “Equestria special forces” fic—a genre I’ve become increasingly fond off over the last year, where the protag must confront Equestria’s enemies in secret and deal with whatever lot happens to occur. In some ways, the characters and story is quite similar in style to Equestria's Secret Service while in others, they couldn’t be more different.

For the best genre to put Monsters in is the Tyrantlestia one. It’s twenty years after NMM and Celestia’s been a praetor maximus ever since the Senate passed their Emergency Powers Act. Her reign is primarily held together—like any good authoritarian dictatorship—with a secret police, the Equestria Bureau for State Security (EBSS).

Things kick off with our protagonist, Swift Sweep, executing a raid against the classic Nightmare Moon cult with his fellow EBSS operatives he’s known for years: River Flow, Twilit Grotto, and Lullaby. Lullaby’s the only one with any substantial presence in the story. River and Twilit get their scenes, but are for the most part secondary characters.

The tone of the story’s established when the raid goes south, the cult “priestess” they’re trying to capture escapes, and leaves behind a vivisected corpse, and two captured cultists, one of whom is severely burned and, rather than getting healed like one would expect in an adventure or an action piece, is kept in agony and perpetual suffering, near death as a bargaining chip for information. Gotta start flexing that dark tag early. No sense in letting it go to waste.

We’re then introduced to New Page, the story’s second protagonist and her thievery as she sneaks into a moderately guarded section of the Canterlot Archives to steal some books for her good friend and totally not suspicious and culty unicorn, Flora Dawn. Page is also starting college and gets some ominous warnings from her professor about the long-destroyed Night Guard and the horrors they wrought during the NMM incident, known in-story as The Longest Night.

Meanwhile, Celestia’s none too pleased with Swift and company’s performance and she’s made her displeasure known by reassigning them: Swift and Lullaby are stuck investigating a low-level break-in at the Canterlot Archives, River gets kicked into the bureaucracy, and Twilit is assigned to hunt down a brutal eldrich abomination that’s gorily murdered dozens of guards. Don’t know what he did to get on her bad side.

Throughout all this, at the start of each chapter, we’re treated to a slow drip of information about two unnamed ponies who end up joining the Night Guard—one after years of petty theft and crimes and the other after a failed Royal Guard application—and the bond they formed together and with their CO. And, the infamy of the Longest Night.

Monsters is what I would call a themetic story, that is, there’s a main theme to the story that runs through it. And like most themetic fics, it’s going to beat that theme over your head with a lead pipe like it’s the climax of Biblical Monsters. The theme? There’s monsters, of all kinds, in Equestria. From Celestia, who’s a hang nail away from setting up death camps, to the crazy cult who have killed hundreds, to NMM and her fun trip to the Canterlot Archives to check out some books.

By far, though, the main monsters of the story are the protagonists. For Swift and Lullaby are the two unnamed ponies who join the Night Guard, becoming bat ponies in the process. Monsters, you see, has elected to use the “Luna turned regular ponies into bat ponies using her magic” bat pony creation theory. She also put part of her soul into each one, literally tearing it quite painfully from her very psyche.

Then she turns evil. And that naturally becomes a problem for the 400 ponies who have part of her in them. A “Rape of Nanking and the Dark Eldar have a party” kind of problem. Every evil intention. Every degenerate thought. Every dark fantasy is made real. We get to see our hero literally punt a baby foal out of a window while her mom watches in terror, then rape her into catatonia—the mother, that is. Reading that last sentence, it’s so absurd it sounds like an over-the-top grimdark comedy fic.

And yet, not only is there as much humor in it as there is light in a black hole, but it’s the central scarring event of the whole fic. Every character, every personality, and a large part of the plot orbits that infamous event. The former bat ponies (who didn’t commit suicide afterward) are so wracked by guilt, they’re following Celestia right off the cliff, hoping to atone for their past atrocities while they commit ever increasing ones. Swift’s days of punting foals out five story windows are over, but he’s more than happy to punt them into Celestia’s slave mines.

That event is perhaps the most important of the story, establishing the characters’ defining personalities and the setting they’re in, so it’s not too surprising it reveals one of the story’s flaws as well. The most obvious move would have been to make NMM responsible. The part of her soul in them corrupted them and that explains the sudden flip from “protect the night” to “burn the capital to the ground.”

But it is very explicitly stated that’s not what happened. The bat ponies—all 400 of ‘em—raped and murdered and pillaged all on their own, while NMM just cheered from the sidelines and ate blood-stained popcorn. All that happened is they were freed from their inhibitions. Like they were on anti-depressants or something. From a plot perspective, it makes sense. You can’t, after all, have the guilt and atonement and loyalty if they were being mind controlled or corrupted by dark magic. I mean, it’s not like Celestia’s teetering on the edge of dictatorship and could tell some white lies to trick them into believing they’re guilty—and thus loyal to her—when they really aren’t.

The problem isn’t plot, it’s character. These bat ponies have been consumed by guilt for 20 years, but why? Why would someone who wants to murder and rape but is only avoiding it because of some moral or social obligation going to feel guilt over it, let alone contemplate suicide? It presents a sort of continuity error: we’re explicitly told they did it “all of their own volition” and yet 20 years of terrible guilt and dozens of suicides really show the opposite.

It’s an odd situation where it feels like the story’s engaged in a sort of endless catch 22—you have to have them willingly commit their actions so they can later feel remorse and tow Celestia’s line, but if they’re willing to do all that, it’s incredibly unlikely they’re going to be feeling much remorse over it.

In the long run, it’s not the sort of issue that kills the story or even weakens it a ton. It’s just the sort of thing you end up thinking about when Lullaby—who never really showed any evil intent either in the flashbacks or present, raising the question of why she’d be so into the foal punting and not, say, beating to death the XO that rejected her Royal Guard application—starts cracking jokes about the apparently-not-dead foal that was punted to the 20 yard line and you wonder about her moral compass and the underpinnings of the entire bat ponies’ characterization up to then.

So Swift is quite shocked when their investigation of the break-in leads to Page and, you guessed it, she was the aforementioned foal football. She even has her mother’s bracelet he saw when he raped her—the mother, that is. And yes, you are correct. The second “he raped her mother before she was born” entered the picture, you knew what the answer was going to be. The Law of Story Drama demands it. I would have been stunned if it hadn’t been the case.

Turns out, though, that Page wasn’t the foal football. That Page died a horrible grimdark death at the hooves of an apparently guilt-riddled monster. She just happens to be that monster’s rape daughter. So Swift’s guilt leads him and Lullaby—the shipping between them is implied but never stated—to delay on the inevitable “turning Page over to the gulag” once her association with the Nightmare Moon cult is made plain and obvious.

And by that I mean she becomes intimately familiar with the cult and it turns out, they’re not that bad. I mean, they did murder hundreds, but who hasn’t in this story? No, seriously. Even Page is linked to the cult’s murders thanks to all the dark magic books she stole for them. Remember: the theme’s going to beat itself over your head over and over again.

The cult’s not the classic NMM one you all know. They don’t want Nightmare Moon back—they know she’s crazy and evil and would lead to planetary extinction. They want Luna back. Primarily so she can bitch slap Celestia for all the stupid shit she’s been doing. There’s even a failsafe if the whole resurrection plan fails. Granted, it’s based on someone openly killing her best friend she’s known since foalhood, but hey, what’s one more vivisected body on the pile?

Page, of course, doesn’t know she’s the Nyx of their plan. So she helps them break into the heavily protected section of the Canterlot Archives and steal the only remaining piece of Luna’s soul that’s left, nearly blowing the Archives up in the process and killing a ghost dragon. Page suffers some severe burns as well and decides a crazy cult really isn’t her thing and leaves before Flora can get the barrel full of Flavor Aid out (I want to make sure my references are historically accurate).

Then, Page grows a bat pony wing to replace the one she burned. Yup, it’s that sudden. Really got a “Twilight becomes an alicorn” vibe from her panicking and desperate attempts to hide it (which is kind of funny given the author’s stance on Twilicorn; well, canon Twilicorn anyway). That her mom, who just happens to be visiting, sees. Then the EBSS break down her door and arrest her for treason. Right after she says “It’s all right. It’s all going to be fine.” No wonder I was feeling the Twilicorn connection.

The EBSS hold her captive and she spills the beans rather quickly about the cult, then they torture her because, hey, they have the vices, they might as well get their money’s worth out of them. Again, no sense in letting the dark tag go to waste. They know she’s critical to the cult’s plans and so keep her locked away until the cult times out and loses.

But, they are Royal Guards (sort of), and there has to be some incompetence that leaks in and lets the cult steal Page with a hoof-held portal device and take her to the Canterlot Archives. Then, it’s time for the vivisection and heart removal. Page just can’t seem to catch a break in the last few chapters, it seems. Her heart’s placed in a magic jar that can be broken—the previously mentioned failsafe, although I suppose it’s a faildeadly from Page’s perspective.

Swift, River, and Lullaby mount a daring rescue attempt while the rest of Equestria’s military is further duped by that incompetency I mentioned earlier. Celestia, meanwhile, has been the Nero to the Canterlot Archives’ burning Rome, opting to practice her menacing slouch in the throne instead of actually helping the plot.

Flora is then confirmed to be a few mangoes shy of a peck (I’m assuming pecks can be used as a unit of mango measurement) during the vivisection and removal of her friend’s heart when she happily announces Page’s soul and presumably consciousness will be permanently locked inside the necklace formerly containing Luna’s soul for the rest of eternity once Luna takes over Page’s body. They’re going to have so much fun together! It’ll be just like old times, except with more terrified screaming and going insane from isolation and the inability to move.

The rescue attempt… well, this is a story that started with someone nearly burning to death and having a foal used as a football. How do you think it goes? NMM gets resurrected and seizes control of Page’s body, launches into some curses and the general evil shtick she’s known for, then things jump off a cliff as the gore tag steps up to help its close friend.

First, NMM captures Lullaby and River and forces Swift to decide who dies. He picks River, since he’s kind of a dick and did previously try to commit suicide. So she proceeds to kill Lullaby in some kind of sadistic reverse psychology thing. And not just kill, spend seven paragraphs describing just how telekinesis crushes someone to death, then uses Lullably’s body as a mop in the Canterlot Archives. Then throws her into that big glass hourglass we see in It’s About Time (it certainly is weird seeing canon screenshots of the Star Swirl wing and realizing this is the location of the climax).

But that gore tag’s just getting started. It spent the whole story in the dark tag’s shadow and there’s still two crazy cult villains left. Flora’s boss, Nie, who is both a vampire and has hypnosis that would make any fetishist blush with delight, is next. His attempts to coerce NMM into compliance fail and his eyeballs burst like grapes.

Flora realizes that everything’s completely fucked, but can’t bring herself to implement the faildeadly on her friend. NMM rewards this first shred of morality the unicorn’s had in the story by ripping her throat open, then ripping her head clean off like she was a griffon from Rise of Firefly to retrieve the alicorn amulet (if only Trixie had known where that thing’s been). NMM then leaves to violate canon, only for Celestia to finally intervene and kick her ass because this story lacks an AU tag.

With the climax over, there’s just the wrap up. Swift is locked away in the slave mines for a decade, Page’s body is returned to normal, heart and all but sans a wing, but she’s stuck in a coma. And Celestia continues her slide into Tyrantlestia. You know, a pretty happy ending for the characters. At the very, very end, Page wakes up and reunites with her newly released rape-dad and he helps her write Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide, despite the fact the elements played no role whatsoever in the story and, in fact, were not even mentioned or referenced.

The opening monologue from the pilot closes things out to remind us of the canon connection all the death and rape apparently has.

Monsters is, believe it or not, a prequel to another fanfic, Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift. It’s been many years since I read Night Shift and I only remember the reveal to its mystery and its ending: Cadance is evil, sterile, and she’s turned into a cherry tree. I remember being disappointed by the ending, particularly the fact that, despite spending an entire chapter literally inside the character's head (have I ever mentioned how much I hate the “journey through the center of the mind” plots?), I still had no idea why she was actually evil. Presumably it had to do with the sterility but, geez, that’s why adoption’s a thing.

But Monsters isn’t Night Shift and its ending doesn’t involve anyone turning into trees. Being crushed to death by telekinesis and smeared around the Canterlot Archives? Getting thrown into a gulag for a decade? Writing Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide? Yes. But no trees.

Is it better than Night Shift? I would say so. I may have forgotten most of Night Shift but I don’t remember being completely blown away by it, or especially by its climax. It did help to establish the mystery fic genre that’s carved out its own niche, but I do believe the prequel was an improvement—in story, at least.

Despite the mystery tag’s presence in Monsters, I really struggle to think of what mystery there was. The multiple first person perspectives kind of put a damper on whatever mystery there was once the second main character gets going and we’re fully thrown into the cult. But the dark tag, and the gore tag. Those, as that reference to the Canterlot Archives scene can attest, are very much needed.

But there’s still one issue that gnaws at me, and it is, in hindsight, probably the story’s largest flaw. It is, in fact, the very same issue that plagued another fanfic about Luna’s bat pony guards--Her Soldiers, We--the lack of an AU tag. All the death, all the rape, all the Tyrantlestia and this is supposed to happen before the show. And yet, the main flaw is the same: NMM confronting the M6. The NMM of Monsters is one of the most vicious depictions that I’ve seen. Her actions during the initial NMM incident make the Rape of Nanking look like a Disney movie. She’s sadistic and cruel—brutally murdering not one, not two, but three characters. One, by telekenitically crushing her to death, one by snapping her neck then popping her head off, and one by popping his eyes. It strains the T [Gore] rating to its very limit and easily could have been M-rated.

And yet, this is supposedly the very same character who cosplays with Rainbow Dash, makes some silly looking trees, and puts a thorn in a manticore’s paw as part of her evil gambit. But, you say, surely this is an issue with any dark fic? The show can never match the fanfics when it comes to dark or horror. There’s always going to be a “grimdark gap.” That’s true and you could perhaps hold a debate—much like the one over cuss words’ role in fanfics—over how immersion breaking dark fics are in general when stacked against their canon counterparts, or conversely, how much better they are than their canon counterparts.

But—and this is key to the issue here—most dark fics don’t present the opening scene of the show’s pilot as their final scene. They don’t thrust canon at you right at the end as if to highlight the glaring inconsistency. Dark fics usually do all they can to avoid a direct link with canon—they’ll be in the far future, or an AU of twisted characterizations, or will simply ignore any possible connection pinning it to a chronological point. Directly linking with canon almost gives it a continuity error feeling. One of these things isn’t like the other and there’s no real way to reconcile them. That’s the reason there’s an aversion to linking them in the first place.

Even if we cast all that aside and toss the whole thing into an AU or invent some reason NMM’s mellowed from “paint the Archives with blood” to “cut off a dragon’s mustache,” when you boil it down, it’s just not a great characterization for NMM. She’s something of a tragic figure: ignored by her sister, shunned by her people, her bitterness and jealousy eventually overflows the dam of kindness and the whole thing breaks open.

This is still true in Monsters. Her reasons and rationale are still right in line with canon. But her ensuing actions are just bewildering. Bring about eternal night to force everyone to love her evenings and get rid of her sister so she alone can bask in the affection, removing any threats to that goal along the way? Sure, that makes sense given the context of the character.

Literally wanting to kill every living thing on the planet and make them suffer as much as possible, laughing sadistically as she and her guard slaughter thousands, eventually including the very bat ponies she formerly commanded? What. How does that match with her motivations? How does jealousy lead to envy lead to omnicide? At the end of it, she’s going to be even lonelier than when she started; without an uncaring sister, country, or even Night Guard to look at her nights.

The NMM of Monsters is a monster, alright. But she’s a shallow one, bereft of the complexity or characterization she deserves. She’s nothing but an insane, sadistic creature. The ax crazy murderer in the slasher movie. There’s no tragedy or sadness to her that could have been mined, just some insane killing force to be defeated in the climax. Even that eldritch abomination that killed so many seems to have deeper characterization than she does—and he was only in the story for 1,500 words! It’s kind of funny, the monsters in the story all have their depth and personality—they all have their reasons, their excuses, and their guilt—but NMM, the biggest monster of them all, is also the shallowest.

Perhaps that’s supposed to be the intent—to show that the worst monsters have no guilt or remorse or depth to them, that they really are just shallow, pathetic creatures. But if that’s true than that lead pipe beat more than just the theme, it beat a great, tragic and climatic villain right out of the story. And, perhaps, therein lies the danger with themetic stories: an author can get so caught up in the theme and reinforcing that theme that they lose focus on the story and the characters that are so important to telling it.

Even with its odd guilt trips, heavy theme, and lackluster NMM, Monsters is still a fantastic story, with great, deep characters, a wholly unique setting, and a great, satisfying plot that winds and churns through the story—showing off cruelty, sadness, action, and excitement—before culminating in a bittersweet, but poignant ending.

Monsters receives…

...moustaches out of five and, as a result, is both upvoted and favorited.

Why are Possible Trackings involved when they don't even lay eggs?

Class Zero has a very slow burning start, but that likely means it’s taking its time setting things up. It’s tracked with the hope that things don’t move too slowly as the main plot gets going.

In Stella’s Shadow is cut after one chapter, due primarily to the protagonist's language. A little cursing’s fine, but when half the chapter’s covered in it, it rockets me out of the immersion of a supposedly MLP story.

The Golden Armor is cut after six chapters. Ultimately, I just wasn’t really feeling the characterization of the two main characters and the plot felt more SoL than the adventurey Royal Guard training I had been hoping for.

Empty Horizons takes a few chapters, but ultimately sucks me into its worldbuilding, adventure, and slight grimdark nature—all propelled by the classic “save the world” adventure plot.

I should put something profound, given it's Oneshots tomorrow.

Desolate tries to invoke some feels but really feels like it overextends its premise of Twilight being completely unable to visit Ponyville for a century and a half. Even Celestia can make time for that. Crank up the drama and angst a little more and it would start to creep into over-the-top comedy fic territory.

My Best Friend is a Psychopath presents a refreshing comedic twist on the Cupcakes genre intermixed with some yandere style shipping just to make it even odder.

Prison continues the “Tempest getting punished” oneshot genre that’s taken the featured box by storm. It felt fairly standard for the genre, including some bonus points for reminding me of the old Atoner!Luna fanon from way back when.

With Your Shield or On It dives into the rarely used Fleetfoot and Wonderbolts in general. It’s pretty good for a twoshot, although it does drag a little. Some more action or a more intense search and rescue plot rather than Fleetfoot’s internal artsy monolouge would have greatly improved things. And not using present tense would have made it much better. I don’t know why it gets to me as much as it does, but it really gets to me.

In the Hea— I mean, In the Dark of the Night is a decent somewhat adventury romance twoshot, involving the bizarre ship of pony!Twilight and Indigo Zap, made even more bizarre by Twilight becoming a bat pony. While it was decent enough, it really felt rushed, especially near the start. It could have easily been quadruple the length—especially if some action scenes and worldbuilding for the bat ponies occurred—but instead crammed itself into 8k.

And that's all I read for the month.

# of story updates remaining: 617.

# of “Read Later” stories remaining: 1,235.

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Comments ( 4 )

cute:twilightsmile: I like the animation.I'll read what you wrote later.I hope you are well. I do not hear from you in 2 years.

I thought the message of Night Shift was how much JawJoe hated Cadence and A Canterlor Wedding.

Thank you for the review. I'm actually surprised by the rating you gave since you focused so much on the negative throughout. Not that I'm complaining! And that's not to say your observations are incorrect.

Well, one thing: "The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide" is a book the gang finds in the Ponyville library in episode 2. The (untitled?) storybook Twilight reads at the start of episode 1 is the book used in the fic, which retells the story of Luna and Celestia. ...unless I'm severely misremembering something and this is a plot hole nobody has pointed out yet.

I do unabashedly hide behind the excuse you call the "grimdark gap" for this story. I recognise that it is only an excuse. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And you're correct in your assumption that NMM was made to be a complete, unrelenting "monster" on purpose. I get what you're saying about how that might hurt the story via missed potential, but it was intentional, for better or worse. In my head, NMM is the only "real" monster in the story.

Some day you'll have to get around to my published work(s) and tell me why they suck. It's useful!

Thank you again.

ACW is actually one of my favourite episodes, despite its obvious flaws. I'm weird like that. The "evil Cadence" thing in it was a jab at Cadence's early presentation, though. Weirldy, I'm actually fine with Cadence for the most part once they put her in the Crystal Empire. She's a fine character that works for what she is... just boring and shouldn't be an alicorn because reasons.

As someone who just stumbled across your account, was quite enjoying the depth of your commentary and was wondering where to get one for myself, I must say that I'm quite pleasantly surprised to see you're already reading my story! Here's to hoping I don't flunk out!

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