MaxKodan’s “Dappled Shores”

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Today’s story warns about the hidden dangers of “shows, don’t tell”.

Dappled Shores
[Romance] [Comedy] [Drama] [Equestria Girls] [Slice of Life] • 4,640 words

Rarity and Sunset are having their third weekly Dappled Shores marathon.

And then Sunset ruins everything.

FROM THE CURATORS: Don’t let that story description fool you — this third-place winner in the recent Changing Seasons contest is a light-hearted (and ultimately heartwarming) romp about the perils of spoilers.  “The story is consistently both witty and hilarious,” Horizon said in his nomination.  “Bon mots like ‘it was time to call in the least terrible people she knew’ litter the text, and the dialogue is consistently whipcrack smart.  The shipping scenes, too — with their wealth of loving detail, like the matcha tea and Rarity’s nose for laundry detergent — are a delight to read.”  AugieDog agreed, much more succinctly: “I’d call this romantic comedy done right.”

But we quickly found that there was plenty to like in the story whether readers appreciated shipping or not.  “The comedy is the big sell here,” Chris said.  “Once the story started diving into Sunset’s and Rarity’s overreactions, the hushed horror of their friends, and Rainbow having only one make-up plan, I was sold.”  Soge was impressed by the prose: “God damn, the writing is really strong here, full of clever turns of phrase, great pacing, and a keen sense of comedic timing.”  And the relationship itself even won over some doubters.  “Maybe it’s just that the prescription on my shipping goggles needs an adjustment, but I’m always a little leery of stories that start off with any of Our Heroines in a romantic relationship,” AugieDog said.  “By the end of this one, though, I was absolutely convinced that there was something very real between this Sunset and this Rarity.”

The icing on the sweet cake of the prose was the solid construction throughout.  “Most impressively, in less than 5,000 words it manages to give solid moments to each of the entire Humane Seven,” Horizon said, while AugieDog praised the structure: “I really enjoyed the way we only see the unfortunate aftermath of each plan and the way Rarity sort of floats over the whole middle section of the story like a will-o-the-wisp, drawing Sunset on to ever-increasing extremes.”  That reinforced the core strength of the story, Chris said: “The running gags and the winking mockery of the sillier parts of the show (and movies), all while letting the characters take the central conflict seriously at every turn, kept things funny without turning it all cynical.”

Read on for our author interview, in which MaxKodan discusses object transpositions, old film, and midnight definitions.
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WishyWish’s “Sugarcube in the Corner”

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An unlikely crossover source mashes up with pony in today’s story.

Sugarcube in the Corner
[Drama] [Sad] [Slice of Life] [Tragedy] • 8,069 words

Enter Painless — a young resident physician at Manehattan East Side Memorial Hospital who drew the short lot, and ended up working through Hearth’s Warming. With the city caught in the grips of a blizzard that weatherponies are still trying to get under control, the night is boring, the decorations contrived, and the coffee is as bitter as his sensibilities.

Tonight, Painless has a single, pointless task assigned to him — to keep the company of a lonesome, unconscious stallion who is essentially already dead. In so doing, a young doctor will learn that medicine is about more than scalpels and technique.

It’s also about mending broken hearts.

FROM THE CURATORS: One of the joys of fanfiction is running across the sorts of stories which the show itself won’t offer us — but which feel like they nevertheless fit right in with the show we love.  “How about a hospital drama with a high realism factor, lots of emotion, and a young doctor learning not to harden his heart to the world?” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  “Plus, it’s a M*A*S*H tribute. You don’t see a lot of those.” We quickly came to appreciate that blend.  “This feels well removed from the show, but not in a way that breaks immersion … learning a lesson in empathy like this is very much in MLP’s bailiwick,” Chris said.  And while it drew many elements straight from the M*A*S*H episode it used as inspiration, it was “an excellent adaptation, and a strong story in its own right,” Horizon said.

That was due at least in part to the way that it brought MLP canon into its tale.  “The turning point in this story comes when it’s revealed early on that the dying stallion is not just another OC like the main characters, but Mr. Cake,” Present Perfect said.  “It was quite the effective tactic, and it pays off well by the end.”  There was also plenty of payoff along the way, Chris said: “I feel like Corner is at its best in its smaller moments.  Painless’ coffee selection in the opening is a tiny but revealing moment, and there are a lot of those scattered about, buttressing a melancholy but touching story about doing what you can for living and dead alike.”

Both those big and small factors were repeatedly cited in our discussion.  “This does some impressive character work at its epistolary core, but what makes it exemplary for me is the emotion past the final turn,” Horizon said.  “The meditation on death that this draws from its crossover source is profound in a way that really touches on the moral core of MLP — about caring, and about what caring means.”  But ultimately, it was the successful meshing of two very different styles behind this story’s strength.  “It’s a powerful juxtaposition, throwing ponies into an unfixable situation,” AugieDog said.  “There’s always a chance in the Pony universe, always a possible solution that will right the balance and mend the broken heart.  This story doesn’t have that … but it treads very close to the line.”

Read on for our author interview, in which WishyWish discusses Alphasmarts, Flutterhugging, and rock candy cherries.
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AShadowOfCygnus’ “Cold Light”

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Today’s story might offer up some cold comfort.

Cold Light
[Dark] [Human] [Sad] • 3,209 words
[Note: This story contains sexual themes.]

Even in our darkest moments, the stars shine coldly down — distant and remote, but bright in the blackness. Refuse them, shut them out, and they remain. Let them in, and they may convince you of the warmth in their embrace.

This is not a story about stars.

This is a story about people and ponies, and what they visit on each other in moments of darkness.

FROM THE CURATORS: While most of our features are exemplary because of the ways that they reflect the show we all enjoy, sometimes we run across a story that draws its power from its willingness to use pony as a lens onto far darker problems.  “This is not an easy story to read,” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  “It deals with a difficult topic, but unfolds it in a way that is insidious, pervasive, and excruciatingly gentle, up until it kicks you in the teeth.”  We quickly reached broad agreement on its quality.  “It manages to establish a nice balance between sadness and melodrama, talks about trauma without glorifying it, and despite the bleakness of the situation, it ends on a good and positive note,” Soge said.

For AugieDog, it was that emotional balancing act which tipped the scales toward a feature.  “It’s the protagonist’s initial anger toward the unicorn that really makes the story,” he said.  “She wants to be tough, capable, realistic, not needing any unicorns … but finds a different kind of toughness: the toughness that doesn’t turn away a unicorn’s help.”  Both main characters’ portrayals were hard-hitting, Chris said: “The unicorn’s matter-of-fact declaration about giving and taking is something wonderful, a credo delivered with such certainty when most it’s needed. … This is a harsh piece of writing, as anything that tackles this subject would have to be, but the way it doesn’t flinch away from the toll taken on the girl feels necessary rather than exploitative.”  And Soge noted the power of the raw premise: “There are a lot of metaphorical implications of meeting a unicorn after that particular situation, and I’m glad to see the ways the fic explored that.”

Beyond its quality, much of our discussion centered on the fact that “this is almost non-pony fiction,” as Present Perfect put it.  “Outside of a reference to two royal pony sisters, it looks like urban fantasy.”  And ultimately, for a majority of us, quality won out.  “I don’t know that this is a great fanfic per se, but it’s a great story, and the fact that it’s presented as fanfic doesn’t harm that story,” Chris said.  “In the end, I’m going to have to come back to Benman’s ‘Aren’t we here to spotlight the coolest shit our community has done?’ standard; this could be published in any fantasy magazine right now, with zero changes to the text.”

Read on for our author interview, in which AShadowOfCygnus discusses Boswell watersheds, anachronism stewpots, and poking holes in the world.
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The Albinocorn’s “Firebird Dahlia”

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An explosive sibling rivalry is at the center of today’s story.

Firebird Dahlia
[Drama] [Slice of Life] • 48,819 words

Life is looking up for Sunset Shimmer.

With her grandstanding at the Battle of the Bands, Canterlot High has taken a new approach to her. Amends have been made, friendships have been restored, and Sunset is on the fast track to becoming a better person.

But even now, there are still apologies that have to be said.

For her Spring Break, Sunset returns to Equestria to make up with her estranged family: the parents that raised and provided for her, and the sister she left behind. But a lot has changed since then, and some wounds won’t heal by just saying ‘I’m sorry.’

Fixing friendships is one thing. Sunset will be put through her hardest test yet when she tries to bring her family back together.

FROM THE CURATORS: Our immediate reaction to this story was exemplified by AugieDog’s joy of discovery.  “After seven years of reading ponyfic, I love it that I can still come across ideas that clang so happily against the bell in my brain,” he said.  “I mean, of course Sunset and Spitfire are sisters!  It’s perfect.”  But it takes more than a great premise to make a story exemplary, and Firebird Dahlia was happy to deliver more.  “I adore stories that delve into the whys and hows of Sunset’s downfall, and this is absolutely one of the best,” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  “Her rivalry with Spitfire, her inferiority complex in the shadow of her all-pegasus family, her goals as Celestia’s student: it all coalesces to turn a pony who was shy, nerdy and picked on into a megalomaniac trying to conquer Equestria.”

Our discussion repeatedly turned to the fine touch with which this fic handled its cast.  “It’s a triumph of characterization,” Soge said.  “Sunset’s characterization is marvelous, and the way it justifies her actions and personality was extremely well realized. All other characters are also stand-outs, from Spitfire to their parents, to all the mane cast that get involved in the proceedings.”  AugieDog agreed: “I’ve got an older sister and two younger brothers, and the family dynamic displayed here feels absolutely true and honest to me.”  And Horizon was impressed with their depth: “It’s exemplary work to have a redemption story handle such complex characters so sensitively, and the result is heartwarming.”

As we discussed various aspects of the story, it was hard to find an element that didn’t get singled out for accolades.  “We get a really well-paced story full of eye-popping moments, interesting revelations, and drama that always feels earned,” Soge said.  “The redemption arc works really well, and it left me wanting to see more in this continuity.”  Present Perfect praised the prose: “The writing was quite good, maybe a little flowery in places, but structured for deep crafting, whether of setting, backstory, or character.”  And even the things it didn’t say were well-chosen, Horizon said: “I am also a huge fan of how this acknowledges critical questions about what happens past the ending of the piece, and yet leaves them in the future.  That serves the theme of redemption as an ongoing struggle well.”

Read on for our author interview, in which The Albinocorn discusses worm cans, slow burns, and cross-country dreadlocks.
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forbloodysummer’s “Why Are You Here, Your Majesty?”

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Today’s story is here for a very good reason.

Why Are You Here, Your Majesty?
[Drama] • 8,405 words

Immortals are few and far between in Equestria, and they are all known to each other. Two of them are about to get to know each other a little better. Because one has just turned up uninvited in another’s private chambers. Maybe it’s time they had a chat?

FROM THE CURATORS: One of pony authors’ favorite pastimes is explaining the world behind the show, so it should be no surprise that we sometimes feature stories centering around headcanon exploration.  When we do, though, we look for something that makes it stand out from the pack.  “This fic is a changeling lore dump at its heart … but the selling point that vaults this above ‘another changeling fic’ is the way the story gets into Celestia’s head as she speaks with Chrysalis,” Chris said in his nomination, and that was one of the factors other curators also cited.  “‘If you forget the crime but remember the sentence, then you come to see yourself as the villain for passing it,'” Present Perfect quoted. “That line’s from Chapter 1. It’s fantastic, and a perfect example of what Chris is talking about.”  Which is not to downplay the also-strong headcanon: “There are some really interesting ideas on display here, particularly its explanation for why changelings act the way they do, and Celestia’s offer for Chrysalis,” Soge said.

But the entire package was tied together by the character at its center.  “What really caught my attention was the portrayal of Chrysalis,” Present Perfect said. “This goes through a number of motions similar to other changeling headcanon fics, but the look into her character here is wholly unique. Equal parts ‘misunderstood mother’ and ‘true tyrant’, but without any of her usual villainous bluster, Chrysalis is strangely vulnerable despite being able to keep her dignity.”  AugieDog agreed: “Chrysalis is presented as being at heart just as uncertain as Celestia, as playing a part just as thoroughly as Celestia. It’s an interesting take on both characters, and I quite enjoyed it.”

And although some of us disliked the prose, even that had its defenders.  “I found the prose to be quite effective for conveying the author’s take on Celestia,” AugieDog said.  “She’s constantly second-guessing herself, constantly trying to convince herself that she’s doing the right thing, and we’re immersed so deeply in her viewpoint that the repetition in the writing just reinforced her uncertainty in my mind.”  That structure also strengthened the piece’s themes, Chris said: “The weighty yet natural-sounding dialogue would be effective on its own, but seeing the princess’ thought processes play out, and how the little conversational gambits unfold, gives this a little more oomph.”

Read on for our author interview, in which forbloodysummer discusses rainbow vocabulary, bedroom teleportations, and secret metal obsessions.

(NOTE: The interview contains significant spoilers for the plot and ending of the featured story; the author suggests reading the story first.)
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Rocket Lawn Chair’s “Star-Crossed”

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Today’s story is a tale of love written in the sky.

Star-Crossed
[Romance] [Slice of Life] • 2,968 words

A thousand years ago he was turning Equestria into a hotbed of mayhem.
Five years ago he was growing moss and lichen on his shoulders.
Today he’s asking Celestia out on a date.

Celestia didn’t know such a creature as Discord would be able to change so radically without it being part of some elaborate prank. But what’s more unsettling, she didn’t know she’d be able to change just as drastically. As she finds new feelings for the Master of Chaos, she begins to have doubts toward the integrity of her desires, and suspicions of her sister’s possible involvement.

FROM THE CURATORS: For a story about Celestia struggling with the ambiguity of her romantic feelings, this had some delicious ambiguity of its own.  “The best thing about this story is that Dislestia shippers can read it as a straight romance,” Chris said in his nomination, “and people like me can read it as a psychological horror story, and it still works.”  And while we disagreed on the specifics of the piece’s depth — “The subtext, especially of that final scene, steers away from the psychological horror interpretations … which is not to say that Luna’s free of mischief, and that extra layer adds a delicious complexity to the piece,” Horizon said — we agreed on its richness.  “The storytelling here is so wonderfully measured, like the ticking of a grandfather clock,” AugieDog said.  “It’s still sneaky, though, jumping back and forth in time, and more than a little cryptic with its sparse dialogue and frequent silences. So it’s got a nice mix of qualities associated with Celestia, Discord, and Luna.”

Indeed, the story’s portrayal of those three drove much of our praise.  “The characters are presented in interesting ways, and it’s a good bit deeper than your average shipfic,” Present Perfect said.  Horizon agreed: “The big thing right is the character work here,” he said, “often subdued and subtle but sometimes with the prose just blossoming like a flower. Like: ‘I think that love, in its own way, is a kind of chaos. Thwarting logic, driving us to do the impossible. Sounds like the kind of thing that would come naturally to him.'”

We found the rest of the prose equally quotable.  “The author gets a lot of mileage out of the smallest actions,” Chris said, citing the story’s final sentence (to which Horizon responded, “That last line is goddamn perfect”). Chris’ praise went further: “The whole fic is like that, piling import upon trifling actions, and seeding passing fancies and casual memories with a deeper significance.”  That layered with its thematic richness, AugieDog said: “The story here does have a somewhat haunted air to it, with all its talk of night and the sea and autumn.”  As Horizon put it, that added up to an exemplary package: “All in all, this is solid and poignant and endlessly surprising.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Rocket Lawn Chair discusses thigh proportions, bending backward, and the seventeenth try.
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SpinelStride’s “Rarified Airs”

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Take flight into an alternate Equestria in today’s story.

Rarified Airs
[Adventure] [Alternate Universe] • 44,226 words

When the Windigos attacked, the ponies had to find a way to put an end to the distrust and anger that fed the frozen fiends. The unicorns found a way. No more earth ponies, no more pegasi, no more problem.

A thousand years later, Princess Twilight Sparkle thinks that her ancestors may have made a mistake. Fortunately, she knows a way to test her hypothesis. She names that way ‘Rainbow Dash.’

FROM THE CURATORS: “This is a story I was hesitant to start based on just the description,” Chris said in his nomination, but from that humble beginning the superlatives flew thick and heavy.  “Rarified Airs is an achievement in worldbuilding and characterization in an AU the likes of which I have never seen before,” Soge said, while AugieDog was hooked from early on: “The opening is just about as fine an example of how to introduce a setting as I’ve seen in a ponyfic. We get exactly as much information as we need exactly when we need it, and there’s not an infodump in sight.”  Horizon was enthralled for different reasons: “It demonstrates so much emotional depth and tonal range that even as a worldbuilding fan I have to say that the amazing worldbuilding doesn’t feel like the biggest thing right, but just the cherry on top of the powerful coming-of-age tale.”

Over and over again, we cited one big factor in our discussion: “It’s a relentlessly interesting story, full of characters who blend the familiar and the unexpected in just the right combination,” as Chris said.  As if to prove that point, everyone name-dropped different supporting cast members when citing what made it exemplary. Present Perfect: “Figuring out things like who Rose Quartz actually is, or what might have happened differently outside the whole marvelous ‘unicorns genocide the other tribes’ premise is so much fun.”  Horizon: “The scene where Rainbow Dash throws up and converses with the anonymous guard is a microcosm of what makes the story so powerful.”  And Soge: “The author managed to portray Blueblood making lewd remarks towards Rainbow Dash as sympathethic!  That is nothing short of a miracle.”

The one major point of contention in our voting was the story’s final chapter.  “So much of it is just so familiar to the Equestria we know, and it’s a real letdown,” Present Perfect said — and while most of us voiced complaints about that and the story’s climactic twists, “everything else was fantastic up to that point,” as Soge put it.  “It is undeniable how powerful the other 90% of the fic was.”  And even that ending managed to garner some praise.  “It goes some surprising places at the end,” Chris said. “If not in the broad strokes, then in details like Blueblood’s character growth, or what happens to Diamond Tiara.”

Read on for our author interview, in which SpinelStride discusses solar repair, crystal descendants, and marshmallow fisticuffs.
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Fiddlebottoms’ “Discord’s Ant Farm”

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In today’s story, take a trip into the future with one of My Little Pony’s ant-agonists.

Discord’s Ant Farm
[Sad] • 2,619 words

That wacky Spirit of Chaos is at it again…

Except, there’s no ponies in the audience.

There’s nothing, really. Just an empty, post-apocalyptic expanse.

Nothing, and some ants.

FROM THE CURATORS: Over the past six years, many fanfics have been written whose premises have been invalidated by later seasons of the show.  However, some remain great despite that.  “This story shows just what sort of potential Discord had prior to his reformation,” Present Perfect said in his nomination, and this soared to a feature amid compliments like AugieDog’s: “Really, it all worked for me — the way Discord feels betrayed; his aimlessness; his lashing out; his hitting upon a new hobby at the end.”

It was that strong execution, combined with an exemplary examination of Discord’s character, that drew most of our commentary.  “Along with good imagery and that overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness, this tackles subjects like the importance of harmony to a spirit of chaos and why Discord doesn’t kill,” Present Perfect noted.  Horizon had similar praise: “The big thing right here is how effectively this paint’s Discord’s denial and frustration and desperation through his actions,” he said.  “It’s easy to forget that, despite his phenomenal power, Discord is fundamentally a reactive force … his portrayal of Celestia is really telling: his ideal fantasy world isn’t one in which everypony loves him and follows his lead, but one in which he gets to continue playing the foil. That, more than anything, drives home the horror of the isolation here.”

We also noted how the prose reinforced those deeper themes.  “The language the story uses had a Discordian feeling to it, too: heading toward overblown but undercutting itself constantly,” AugieDog said.  And the world around Discord, Horizon said, also contributed to the overall excellence.  “I appreciate that the apocalypse is well-sketched but never fully explained,” he said, “and the ant-iclimax — ha ha, see what I did there — is the cherry on top.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Fiddlebottoms discusses graviton theft, future cancer, and angry scalp massages.
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FrontSevens’ “Fun in the Summit”

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Today’s story is a foray into diplomatic impunity.

Fun in the Summit
[Comedy] [Slice of Life] • 7,774 words

Trade negotiations. Board meetings. Formal garden parties. Not the definition of a fun weekend for Princess Celestia at all.

However, Celestia has a plan. Rarity’s going to join her this year, and by their gossiping powers combined, they may be able to turn this upcoming convention into something a little more unconventional.

FROM THE CURATORS: When we find a story that we appreciate for its depth, it’s a rare pleasure to find it also in top form from the start.  “This story had me hooked from the first line, displaying a detached, dry humor which I found instantly appealing,” Chris said to wide agreement such as Horizon’s: “Chris isn’t kidding about the excellence of the opening. It cracks not just three solid jokes but three different types of jokes in three sentences. The sequence about the meeting’s bureaucratic opening is somewhat low-hanging fruit, but the execution of it is a thing of beauty.”  And that beautiful hilarity extended to the details: “What kind of a name is ‘Snaptibia’?” Present Perfect asked.  “A great one, that’s what.”

But the deeper drama here drew as much praise as the comedy.  “Toward the end, FrontSevens turns to a bit of introspection on how immortality changes one’s priorities and sense of scale, and — importantly — does so without abandoning the tone of that which came before,” Chris said.  “The exaggerated characters which surround Celestia and Rarity complement that tone perfectly as well.”  He wasn’t the only one to comment on the smoothness with which the story made that transition.  “The comedy is never forced, with a breezy quality exemplified by how Celestia and Rarity blithely ignore everything and everyone around them, and it’s entirely hilarious,” Present Perfect said.  “Then, the final scene’s poignancy was unexpected, but not unwanted.”

We found both the comedy and drama bolstered by sharp character work.  “Rarity is just fabulous throughout the fic,” Soge said.  “The way she talked with Celestia worked really well, and every time they started gossiping I had a smile on my face.”  And it was tied together by the fic’s unusual princess interpretation: “I have to say that I quite like this characterization of Celestia,” AugieDog said.  “It’s a huge contrast to the way she’s usually presented — she has no goals at all, and in fact can’t see anything but silliness in what’s going on around her. That’s why the narrative voice is so arch and distancing: this is the unreliable third person narrative going on in Celestia’s head, the one that reduces all conflicts to checkers games and just about every other being in the world to buffoons and caricatures.  But she’s making an honest effort to reconnect to the world, and her plan kind of works.”

Read on for our author interview, in which FrontSevens discusses bonus edgelords, cross-stitch signals, and dingus hahas.
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cursedchords’ “The Legend of the Scorpion Queen”

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Today’s story about Equestrian harvest legends will grow on you.

The Legend of the Scorpion Queen
[Romance] [Sad] • 16,226 words

On the eve of the Day of Reaping, the start of the Equestrian Harvest, it is traditional that a legend be told over supper: the legend of how the traditions surrounding the Day of Reaping came to be. It is a story of love, ambition, and vengeance.

Long before Equestria, a grand Unicorn King maintains a splendid garden. On one of his travels he brings a scorpion back to live within it. That scorpion, resentful of being removed from her home, sets out to have her revenge.

FROM THE CURATORS: While MLP offers plenty of material from which fanfic authors can draw, sometimes it’s inspiring to see the ways in which authors use the show as a springboard to dig into more mythic roots.  “This is a great fairy tale, resting on classic tropes while weaving a completely original story,” Present Perfect said in his nomination — and while our response to the story’s MLP connection was measured, the comments on its quality weren’t.  “This is a touching story about love, trust, betrayal, and redemption, and while I don’t see something like this fitting all too well with show canon, I can see something like this as part of a ‘Pony 1001 nights’,” Soge said, while AugieDog name-dropped prior features: “It’ll make a good pair with The Lighthouse and the Sea as far as ‘pony fairy tales’ go.”

Sharp character work was cited as a factor in its strength.  “If anything makes this work, it’s the scorpion herself,” Present Perfect said.  “I fully expected her to eventually fall for the King, but the way her motivation changes is interesting and keeps the story moving along.”  But theme and tone also were singled out for praise.  “I really appreciated that the author didn’t feel the need to force a happy ending, instead opting for a more bittersweet but still uplifting finish,” Chris said.  “To me, that felt very appropriate both to the story (being about the nature of revenge, as it is) and to the in-universe conceit.”

That added up to an exemplary package of self-contained mythology. “There’s an effortlessness with which the narrative is presented, and the whole thing really does feel like an actual in-universe story that ponies would tell,” Present Perfect said.  Chris’ recommendation summarized the story’s strengths: “It’s probably not a good choice for readers looking for something with a strong Equestrian tone, but for fans of folktales, this is a must-read.”

Read on for our author interview, in which cursedchords discusses arranged sunsets, handy tissues, and prospective accountants.
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