I’d like to thank Chris for once again opening up his site to any old riff-raff people who have something interesting to say while he’s on vacation. Hopefully he’s having a great time!
Chris’s “tell us about a story I’ve given a low rating and why you loved it” prompt grabbed me from the get-go, as making a nice, good-natured argument in favor of something I like can be a lot of fun. That plan ran up against the unfortunate reality that, it turns out, I haven’t read very many of the stories he’s given one or two stars to, and of those, I don’t actually disagree with any. Oops.
Yet, I was undeterred, as there was one that stood out: the "Couchtavia" review. (As I agree with most of the points made, I won’t be extensively recapitulating much from Chris’s review, so (re)reading it might serve as useful background to the remainder of this post.)
Whenever I think of “Couchtavia,” you see, I think of another story as well: "100% Move = 50% Fire." They’ve got more than a few similarities, from being slice of life fics concerning someone’s move from Canterlot to Ponyville; to coming from authors whose work ranges from excellent and thoughtful (“Numbers,” “500 Little Murders,” both deservedly in the RCL) to silly and fluffy or downright crazy (“Lyra Meets the Punisher,” “Fluttershy Gets Replaced by a Sherman Tank”), and with tendencies to longwindedness, digression, and distinctive descriptions (“The couch was as attractive as baby condors were beautiful. It was a vomit beige thing with splotches of gray rectangular patterns overlapped with one another,” “Silence reigned. After a full minute, it headed for the castle to demand Celestia’s throne.”); to similar publication dates (towards the beginning and end of the end of the S3/S4 hiatus) and rating stats.
But there’s a key difference. As Chris put it,
With a title and description like this, I can see two ways for this story to go. First, it could be a banal trudge through a bunch of Ponyvillian cameos which functions more as a time-filler than a piece of literature. Or second, it could use a silly premise as a vehicle to explore its central character from a variety of angles, while fleshing out the town we all know from the show along the way.
Unfortunately, this story is, in fact, of the first variety.
“Couchtavia” took the former path ; “100% Move = 50% Fire” is an example of what you can get by starting with a similar setup—Octavia bought a used couch and needs to get it across town without the help she was expecting; Twilight needing to move all of her things out of the apartment she used to live in at the Royal Archives in Canterlot by tonight—and proceeding more along the lines of the latter.
The difference starts with the description, which ends with a much more foreboding note playing off of Twilight uncharacteristically being unpunctual:
But Twilight doesn’t want help.
A deadline is in front of her, and she’s — stalling.
They have until sunset…
And continues through the drama of Spike clandestinely gathering the main cast ex-Twilight to recruit them to keep her on task during her packing.
Once in Canterlot with the Bearers, we see another contrast. There’s a significant focus put on this place Twilight used to live, and how it contrasts to the treehouse in Ponyville. Beyond general fleshing out of some of the magic in the residence (for instance, if you weren’t keyed for Twilight’s apartment, you can’t even see it’s there, and the ramp up is enchanted to be high friction since the guardrail is so often removed) and the kind of people who lived and worked there (it’s so often removed because damaging the Archives is like a rite of passage for students there), the reader sees how what they need to pack and what Twilight has to say about it and the city reflect on her life there, and by extension in Ponyville as well.
Similarly, the supporting cast does that: support. Something that stood out to me about “Couchtavia” was that to a significant extent, Octavia’s task of getting her new couch home is used as a canvass for other people’s vignettes and development; she’s the focal point, but not the focus. These in themselves are fine, such as Rarity playing the overbearing make-over artist for comedy, and even forms some arcs covering multiple scenes, as with the thread of Octavia accidentally serving as therapist to Fluttershy and Twilight, and this leading to conflict with Rainbow and the alicorn ex machina of the conclusion. But the reader gets more insight into the characters around Octavia and her mission than into her, they’re the ones that undergo change over the course of the story, and the dispersion across many characters and interactions makes for digestible pieces to fill some time, but is less likely to leave a lasting impression.
Now, that’s not to say that the other characters in “100% Move” don’t get their own scenes or their chance to shine—Pinkie and Rainbow getting distracted is cute, and what comes of Rarity packing Twilight’s old wardrobe is, though entirely predictable, both funny and a chance to take things it a bit further to subtly develop her character and how she and Rainbow interact. Yet these tie in much more closely to the major premise, and having them together avoids the repetitive process of going through a separate meeting with every member of the Mane Six, the CMC, and Bon Bon and Lyra.
It all builds up to an important character moment for Twilight, one which not only feels natural coming from her at this point in the timeline (about a year after arriving in Ponyville, a bit before the Season One finale) but was built up to through Spike’s accurate warning that she’d procrastinate and the contrasts made between Canterlot and her old place and Ponyville and her new. This was delivered well, from the way Twilight was stalling and trying to hide the fact to the choice of Rainbow as the one to push the issue, to the symbolic climax.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any thorns to the story. Estee does tend to the wordy, and the amount of detail devoted to the setting is something that will not be to everyone’s taste. That ties in to a recurring issue with Estee’s work, which is that the vast majority of it is connected to the author’s Tryptich ‘verse. To regular readers, such as me, that can add a degree of depth and extra importance to one-shot stories. To those not familiar, it can represent something of a barrier to entry and enjoyment as concepts and terminology (Estee’s made a glossary) are brought in which may not be fully explained in context or seem like distracting and unnecessary idiosyncrasies within the one-shot. Examples from this story include the extreme difficulty of non–earth ponies growing plants and “backlash,” the effect that occurs when something strikes a unicorn’s horn when they’re doing magic. The flip side, even for those not familiar with the ‘verse as a whole, it means that the individual entry is often (but not always) written with a goal in mind which will inform the larger body of work, meaning that there will be a defined payoff to the story in addition to the experience of what happens along the way.
Besides the general habit of long sentences, digressions, and detail which (while often interesting in itself) may not be essential to a given story, Estee has a tendency to over-write dialog, sometimes resulting in awkward and belabored speeches that don’t feel quite right coming from the characters, like this, in Spike’s early warning to his friends:
“Because — if it’s just her — she’ll pick up the entire apartment,” Spike sighed. “One piece at a time, Rainbow. She’ll inspect that piece. Catalog it. Write down where it was in the original apartment. Create a point-by-point reference map for where it should be put in the library. Wrap every inch. Maybe she’ll wonder about how that piece was originally developed and rush off to the Archives to research its evolution for an hour. She might check to see if it’s appreciated in value. And she’ll repeat that with everything — until it’s sunset and she’s finished one-tenth of a shelf. Or — she might panic, and then…” He spread his arms, looking helpless. “Twilight panics in a lot of different ways, and practically none of them ever work out. I grew up with her, guys. I know how she gets when she’s in trouble — better than anypony. I’m asking you to help her move out of that apartment because if it’s just her, something will go wrong. And if it’s just me helping… it’s not always enough to stop things or get them moving in the right direction. I’m her little brother, and that means she doesn’t always think she has to listen to me even when I know best…”
This doesn’t do much to detract from what is on the whole a strong character piece with elements of drama and comedy (sometimes playing to the somewhat cartoonish side of things, but if that’s a problem, well… what are you doing here?), and some imaginative development of the setting. On the OMPR scale, I’d rate it as about a 3-star, and strongly recommend it to slice of life fans and those who enjoy worldbuilding or developing backstory, with a word of warning to anyone impatient with fluff or one-shots that aren’t self-contained (though this one is close). I take it as an example of how strong an impression the process of packing up one stage of a person’s life can make.
Thanks again, Icy! It's interesting to see how small-sounding changes to how similar premises are approached can yield dramatically different reading experiences, and it would behoove any author to consider this when they're preparing to publish their next story. The plot and premise are important, yes, but execution and how you approach your plot at a concept level are every bit as important to think about.