Sunday, 21 April 2013

Book review: Under the Sparkling Sea (Mary Jane Begin)

The book's front cover
Things you thought you'd never see, no. 82: Twilight doing press-ups
Yes, two reviews of official My Little Pony books in the space of three posts. You lucky, lucky people. Under the Sparkling Sea (pub. Little, Brown & Co.) is a very different kind of book from Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell, though. This is a large (slightly above A4 size) and fairly slim hardback written and illustrated by Mary Jane Begin, an award-winning illustrator from Rhode Island. At the time of posting, you can get it from Amazon UK for £9.44, though there's a 1-3 week wait. Come past the jump and we'll see whether it's worth it...

The first thing to say about Under the Sparkling Sea is that it looks absolutely gorgeous. I'm not in the least surprised that Begin has won awards, and this book features possibly the best artwork I've ever seen in an MLP:FiM product. The paintings — because that's what they are — have tremendous colour, life and depth to them. Begin's artistic style is very distinctive and quite different from that of the show, which some readers may find a bit strange at first, but it does grow on you very quickly.

The ponies meet Nar Wally
Aquastria girls, meeting a shy narwhal
Just about every one of this book's 48 pages is a joy to look at. Individual hairs on the ponies' coats are clearly visible and their appearance changes appropriately once they're beneath the waves. Begin is exceptionally good at using colour and light, and the large spreads in particular absolutely glow. Little details aren't forgotten, such as the gills that the Mane Six get (thanks to a handy spell by Twilight) and the whole thing looks like a labour of love. I can't praise the artwork highly enough.

The story itself is quite simple, dealing with the visit of the Mane Six (and Spike) to the underwater kingdom of Aquastria at the time of the annual race between the seaponies and the mermares. What there is of the tale is told clearly, and the ponies (and dragon) we know are all well in character, but you shouldn't go expecting anything particularly in-depth: it's no illustrated novel, certainly. Both black and white text is used to maximise contrast, which is appreciated by those of us with poor eyesight!

The Mane Six meet the seaponies
You do wonder where Spike's getting his air from...
Under the Sparkling Sea's back cover advertises "a Gorgeous Pull-Out Poster" and this is duly included inside, with perforations allowing you to tear it out without damaging the rest of the book. The poster is a two-sided affair, with the front showing a repeat of the wraparound front cover illustration and the back showing a scene from near the end of the book. Both pictures are well chosen to show off Begin's talent, although I'm not sure how many readers will be able to bring themselves to tear out the poster!

Unlike with Berrow's novel, there are no concessions to the brony market here: despite the presence of seaponies, there's not a hint of shoo-be-dooing. There is a bit of world-building, of course, though who knows whether any of this will correspond to what we'll see in Season 4 of the show? One slight disappointment, though, was that the comment on the front flap that Aquastria's King Leo sits with Celestia on the intriguingly named "Cosmic Council" is entirely unmentioned in the book itself.

One of the simpler illustrations
The expression of so many when meeting Pinkie for the first time...
Under the Sparkling Sea isn't the easiest to rate, feeling like a book by a superb illustrator who can also write solidly, rather than by someone equally at home in both skills. Fans looking for meaty stories with references galore may be happier with Berrow's novel or the IDW comics. However, Begin has produced a truly beautiful work of My Little Pony art, and one which I unhesitatingly recommend. The average brony may not spend too much time reading Under the Sparkling Sea, but they'll probably spend plenty looking at it.

  • Begin's large, vibrant paintings are stunning
  • Large hardback, well produced and satisfying to hold
  • Some interesting world-building
  • The ponies are well in character
  • The writing doesn't quite match up to the artwork
  • Not even a mention of the Cosmic Council in the text

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