Today’s story will exceed your expectations, whether it wants to or not.
The Prisoner of Zebra
[Adventure] [Comedy] [Romance] • 22,964 words
Flash Sentry: hero, heart breaker … and self-admitted coward. For the first time, he details his own undeserved rise to heroism (as well as the trouble such a reputation brings him) in his own words.
FROM THE CURATORS: It’s no secret where this story traces its roots to, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just another rip-off. “The whole Prisoner of Zenda tribute is excellent. Tumbleweed made the right choice, taking the general idea as a start and then breathing new life into it, making it its own thing,” said PresentPerfect. And Augiedog said, “This is also the perfect crossover ’cause it doesn’t assume the reader has any familiarity with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books but still captures the essence of those books so well.” And even past its two major inspirations, the story is chock-full of clever allusions, both obvious and obscure. Chris asked, “Wait, is that a Golden Harvest reference?” while PresentPerfect wondered, “did you catch the Icarus reference?”
There’s much more here than “just” a trove of adaptational comedy, though. Chris said, “the footnotes are full of subtle metahumor and other worthy commentary.” Soge particularly liked the take on a coward protagonist, saying, “Flash fits really well into a “good natured rogue” role, being incompetent and vain, but not really malicious.” PresentPerfect agreed, and also noted how this choice helped tie the story to Equestria: “Flash Sentry makes a perfect womanizing coward (which oddly fits the bare minima that qualify as his canon personality).”
But above all, the selling point here is the comedy mined from the “hero”s reluctance, and that was where we focused much of our appreciation. PresentPerfect called it “hilarious at every turn.” Soge appreciated the character humor, commenting, “how he contrasts with the far more well adjusted Canterlotian society was really good, as were his thoughts about his position.” And Augie singled out the tone: “what the author does here is perfect, mixing a certain snideness with a large amount of self-awareness and no real desire to change.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Tumbleweed discusses floundering woobies, uncaught thieves, and social commentary ninjas.
Give us the standard biography.
Typical midwestern nerd of many fandoms. Occasional adventurer. Fanfiction writer. Fairly boring otherwise.
Started watching the show & writing silly fanfic about it back in 2011. It’s Blueshift’s fault.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It’s a handle I used on some long, long defunct fan-chat stuff, back when I was a kid. I wound up using it as my Fanfiction.net username … which I then went ahead and started posting Pony fanfic on after letting it lie fallow for several years.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Applejack is my favorite pony, but I have to admit Rarity is best pony. Which may be why I write Rarijack.
What’s your favorite episode?
Luna Eclipsed. I got into the show midway through Season 1, and then found myself floundering (along with the rest of the fandom) for a couple of months until Season 2 came out.
Back in the early days of the fandom (get off my lawn, kids!) there was a lot of ‘woobie luna’ fic/art/whatever going around, but Luna Eclipsed was the first look at ‘canon’ Luna, and it was fucking metal. I’m not saying I laughed to see so many headcanons come crashing down (hell, it kind of ruined some of my own ideas I had early on), but it was one of those cases where the folks running the show came up with something far more interesting and generally awesome than the fandom zeitgeist at the time.
Plus, who doesn’t love a Halloween special?
What do you get from the show?
Not as much as I used to.
Really, it’s just one of those things where I’ve gotten older, and busier, and so on. When I first really got into Pony (and started writing fanfic), I was teaching ESL abroad — which made English-language entertainment somewhat hard to come by. But I had a speedy internet connection, and YouTube, and there you go. Watching each new episode became something of a highlight each week. Plus, watching the nascent fandom glom onto each new little detail or character from each week’s new episode was fascinating — particularly when the fanon started to influence the canon (Derpy, Lyra/Bon Bon, etc).
I’ve been back in the US for several years now, and with the way life goes, I only really delve into pony cartoons every once in a while. Even still, I’ve always been a fan of quality animation, so I still enjoy the show when I can find time to sit down and watch.
What do you want from life?
To have stories worth telling, and an audience who’d like to hear them.
Good beers help with both of these things, so we’ll throw those in too.
Why do you write?
Or, well, ostensibly, writing fanfic is practice for writing original fiction that I could theoretically pitch to a publisher someday — and while I have a few scraps and manuscripts I’m plugging away at, I’ve found I’ve become rather good at writing silly pony stories. Huh.
Still, I’m the first to admit stuff like The Prisoner of Zebra is just a labor of love, because the Venn diagram between “George MacDonald Fraser fans” and “Bronies” has gotta be really, really small.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”
It’s one of those great quotes that’s been attributed to a good half-dozen people, at least. Still, it’s good advice — but one that should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m not saying you should go out and start plagiarizing (far from it, really). Rather, the real key is to put enough of a unique spin on established tropes and such to really make it your own. Be a master thief, the kind of debonair type who doesn’t get caught.
So read. Voraciously.
Humanity has thousands and thousands of years worth of stories — there’s no way any single person can read them all, but you can at least familiarize yourself with their building blocks (‘Tropes,’ as it were) and see them in action. A good writer takes in as many different experiences and as much information as possible in an effort to shake all that up and produce something new, yet familiar.
Read the classics (or at least the Cliff’s Notes). Read a bunch of non-fiction. Watch Jeopardy until you can start answering the questions with a high degree of success. Build a working knowledge of the greater cultural ‘canon’ (Warner Bros. cartoons like Looney Tunes & Animaniacs are surprisingly good for this) and then steal from that stuff as needed.
And, y’know, write a lot of stuff and eventually some of it might not be terrible.
What made you want to turn Flash Sentry into the Pony version of Harry Flashman?
It came down to the name — it was either that or a Flash Gordon riff.
Though really, Flash Sentry, particularly the pony version, is one of those wonderful background characters that has very, very little in the way of characterization, canon or fanon or otherwise. Which, incidentally, is similar to Harry Flashman’s origins — he was a minor character and antagonist of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, who was in turn developed into a cowardly hero by George MacDonald Fraser. So I guess there’s a similarity there.
I’d had the idea kicking around the back of my head for awhile, and when I ran into a brick wall on some other stuff I’d been working on, I figured ‘oh, what the hell,’ and gave it a go. Plus, the fact that I knew nobody had written a Pony/Flashman mashup, and likely nobody ever would, was really appealing. This was the same kind of reasoning that led me to write a MLP/Chuck Tingle crossover, though that was mostly for an April Fool’s gag.
Once I started writing, the juxtaposition of a Flashman-like cad blundering through magical ponyland was entirely too entertaining, and so there you go.
Did you find it a challenge fitting Flashman’s distinctive voice and outlook into a Pony character?
Not at all! The show is full of pony antagonists who are braggarts, scoundrels, con-men (con ponies?), and so on. It’s one of the things that makes the cartoon so fun to watch, and so ripe for fanfic.
I will admit, however, Sentry is a lot nicer than Harry Flashman — the latter being astoundingly sexist, racist, and probably a couple of other ‘ists’ I’m forgetting. Fraser is well aware of all this, given the Victorian adventure fiction he’s drawing from. So the Flashman novels can get really, really ugly in places (what with all the war and massacres and such), but it’s something Fraser uses as a way to highlight how terrible the ‘Golden Age of the British Empire’ really was.
Given the fact that I’m just writing about magical silly ponies, I steered clear of anything resembling social commentary and threw in some ninjas instead.
How did you approach writing a crossover when it’s likely your readers aren’t familiar with the source material?
To be honest, I wouldn’t use the term ‘crossover’ to describe The Prisoner of Zebra. To me, at least, crossover means the direct, well, crossing-over of characters from one canon to another. Given that two of ol’ Flashy’s most prominent talents are seduction and horsemanship, this would make sticking him into Equestria … well, potentially entertaining, but certainly bizarre. The same can be said for wedging Rainbow Dash into the Crimean War or somesuch, but I digress.
Instead, I see The Prisoner of Zebra not as a crossover, but as a pastiche. And the Flashman novels are in turn are pastiches of Victorian adventure fiction, and we’re getting all metatextual again.
The thing is, the best satires and pastiches work as examples of the very things they’re, uh, pastiche-ing. One can look at Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ for example. Shawn of the Dead is a silly comedy, yes … but at the same time it touches on all the classic zombie tropes. So, when I was writing The Prisoner of Zebra, I was relying less on the readers knowing who Harry Flashman was, and more being familiar with general comedy & adventure tropes, and enjoying the story for its surface elements.
This got a little amusing when a couple of readers started comparing Sentry to Ciaphas Cain, the cowardly ‘hero’ of a series of Warhammer 40k novels (incidentally, the only 40k novels worth reading) … which are themselves inspired by Flashman. Metatextual as all get out, kids.
Still, it’s pretty heartening to see The Prisoner of Zebra getting a lot more attention than I thought it would, these couple of months later — writing a sequel for Jake The Army Guy’s ‘Obscure Shipping’ contest probably helped a lot.
The Golden Harvest gag was thrown in entirely for my own amusement, though.
Do you have any plans to delve further into Flash Sentry’s papers?
I do! In fact, this interview has inspired me to be halfway productive and get to working on a third volume of the Flash Sentry Papers: Sentry at the Charge.
This one deals with what Flashy & Carrot Top were up to during the events of Where and Back Again (i.e: the Second Changeling Invasion of Canterlot), and the inevitable trouble they get into directly afterward. I’ve got the first chapter or so posted, so go ahead and check it out! It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
And once I get around to finishing that, I have a couple of other vague ideas (read: cheap gags) for a potential fourth installment, again playing around with various background ponies. Or if I got really ambitious, I might have ol’ Flashy trying to figure out the whole ‘human dimension’ business in a potential crossover with my EQG stories. That one would be particularly tricky to get right — I’m probably getting ahead of myself here. I’d better get back to fiddling around with Sentry at the Charge instead.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for reading my stuff! Hope you all enjoyed it.