Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ponyfic Roundup 186: Spotlight on The Skyla Pseudonym

I'd enjoyed the first three parts of iisaw's rip-roaring adventure series: The Celestia Code (PR 59), The Luna Cypher (PR 72) and The Twilight Enigma (PR 118), so this fourth instalment was always going to attract my attention. A little later than planned, here are my rambly thoughts on the fic.

Read it Later story count: 378 (+4)

The Skyla Pseudonym by iisaw
Twilight, Flurry Heart and OCs
Adventure; 90k words; Feb–Aug 2017; Teen
Young Flurry Heart has no interest at all in being a prim and proper princess, and would much rather have wild and dangerous adventures like her Aunt Twilight.
This is the best Flurry Heart story I have read. That's rather faint praise I know, but happily in this case it's proper praise too. If you're like me and love the airship pirate bits of iisaw's earlier books, you're in luck as there's plenty of that. However, the world Flurry – now a teenager – and Twilight fetch up in is one which nicely blunts Twi's magical ability and gives a fresh feel to the derring-do. There are several memorable new OCs to savour, too, and the writing is really good in giving a sense of adventure. I'm still not a huge fan of the really wide canvas (to say more would be spoilery!) and the ending feels slightly abrupt, but on the whole it's as epic as I'd hoped. You probably could jump straight in here, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you want to spend the time wondering why the hay there's a kirin on board and what the deal is with Twilight's appearance. Besides, you'd be missing out. It's very very good, and be it understood, you should put it in your queue! ★★★★

I'll expand on this below, although you should expect a lot of spoilers there, so don't proceed unless you've either already read the fic or don't mind reading quite a bit of what happens.

It was a real struggle to get that summary down to one paragraph, which tends to happen with stories like this. Still, down here I don't need that.

Let's start with Flurry Heart, aka Captain Skyla: she's really nicely done, and after only a little initial irritation of the "Of course she's made absurdly attractive yet brilliant at fencing" kind I entirely believed in her. The role-reversal involved in putting her in command over Twilight (aboard Nebula, by far the most-used location) is a time-honoured technique, but that's because it works – especially when there's some tension between the two.

Twilight herself is... well, as I mentioned in my review of The Twilight Enigma, she does have the Granny Weatherwax thing going on: given her extreme abilities (albeit partly blunted by the low-magic world) how good is she? The late-story stuff involving the Dark and Bright Twilights brings that out a little,  but it's our own Twilight who herself points out that her very name means one halfway between light and dark. Oh, and in her narrative passages she still has that trick of appearing self-deprecating while actually showing off like mad. I love it.

Ao is often involved where Flurry/Skyla and Twilight clash, and indeed she plays a very substantial supporting role in this story as a whole. She's pitched just right, allowing for the years that have passed since we saw her last, and her still-constant use of "this one" still feels right rather than grating. Although very powerful in her own way, Ao is given enough weaknesses to remain a very interesting character, and one who I'm sure could carry her own story if she needed to.

There is a lot of airship action in this book, so you're going to need to enjoy reading what is effectively an Age of Sail sea story. Mind you, if you don't you probably won't have made it this far in the series anyway. This is wonderfully atmospheric and the demanding nature of the operation – especially on a low-magic world – gives supporting characters plenty to do. iisaw generally manages to resist the temptation to make every second line one of the "Hoist the t'g'll'nt garb'd strake!" sort, too. (Yes, I know.)

As with The Twilight Enigma, there is death in this book, although it is obviously being kept to a minimum both by Twilight and by iisaw. There's one particularly horrible scene quite late on involving eye-slits and Twilight's blades, but that's passed over in a line, for which I was grateful. Worse is the non-lethal violence, especially against unicorns: the discovery that some are kept as sex slaves by overseers really did turn my stomach.

On that score, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the racism angle of the other world was handled. "Unicorns are abused" is a setup that it's really easy to make into a crude and silly story, but iisaw added enough nuances and world-building details (something the series has always been good at) that it all felt believable. Plus, he not only creates a clever in-world explanation for alicorns but makes this a key factor in the story's progression.

With Luna generally out of the way, though certainly not absent from Twilight's mind, there's not much TwiLuna to consider. This is a plus for me as I'm not a big fan of the pairing, but it may be a minus for others. Romance in that sense is in relatively short supply, and Flurry certainly doesn't end up married off to some dashing pirate captain. This is adventure first and foremost, and that's really the only tag it needs. (AU is arguable, I suppose.)

The new OCs are a pretty good bunch, even those who are only sketched in – I'm sure there's more to Cream Puff than making great meals. The best of them is certainly Loose Leaf, the fanatical archivist (we need more of those in literature!) who has a little of Twilight in her personality. As for the baddies, the brat-Emperor is superficial but amusing... but the one that sticks is a certain overseer. I'll admit it, I wish that pony had met a nastier fate than being sent to Equestria.

Without the TwiLuna, the only significant aspect of The Skyla Pseudonym that irritates me doesn't appear at all until the final quarter or so of the story. This is the whole "Great Game" business, which I found a bit tiresome even from Terry Pratchett back in the early Discworld books. I suppose it had to be there after being built up in this series' earlier outings, and it does provide the way for the Nebulas to succeed. There's nothing quite as startling as the last book's Red Queen reveal this time, though.

There are a few minor oddities, notably what seems to be a recurrent assumption that seduction (whether accidental or for devious pirate purposes) is fundamentally about the opposite sex. Considering the intensity of Twilight's own relationship with Luna (who stays off-screen for nearly the entire story), this seems a little strange. There are one or two places where real-world politics seem to be a little too obvious. I still don't think "feathering right you do!" sounds anything other than awkward, either.

I'd like to compliment iisaw (and the support team he repeatedly thanks in his chapter end notes – which are often worth a look) for the quality of The Skyla Pseudonym's writing, which is excellent. The pacing is lively and I was never bored, but it's not a blizzard of non-stop swashbuckling either. There are heroically few typos for a story of this length, even if a few more do creep in near the end. It's a story that's hugely enjoyable to read and which left me wanting more. There is a Cadance tale mentioned in passing in-story...

Quote of the fic? "Look, it's just a technicality. It doesn't mean we will actually get involved in an interdimensional war." Good grief, Twilight, brilliant as you are you can be truly dense sometimes. :D

Next time on Ponyfic Roundup: a lucky dip again, since as I type I don't even know what I'll be reading! I need to build up a cushion, but that might take a while.


  1. Thank you very much for the lovely review!

    1. You're welcome. Thank you very much for the great fic!