Thursday, 6 June 2013

Book review: The Elements of Harmony (Brandon T. Snider)

The Elements of Harmony book
And 20% more predictable than all other references
Of all the MLP-related books due to come out this year, this is the one I've been most looking forward to. My Little Pony: The Elements of Harmony: Friendship is Magic: The Official Guidebook, to give it (just this once — promise!) its rather absurd full name, is the book that more than any other held out hope of being something really substantial. Author Brandon T. Snider has form with this sort of book, being the man behind the generally well received DC Comics: The Ultimate Character Guide a couple of years ago. How has he done with our pastel ponies? Past the jump, we'll find out!

The Elements of Harmony makes a very good first impression: it's a quite solidly-built hardback that is satisfying to hold. The cover design is the perfect choice, too: at least, it is once you've removed the slip cover sporting the inevitable but rather unoriginal "20% cooler" reference. The book was designed by Charles Kreloff, and he can certainly give himself a pat on the back. This is the sort of thing you want to start with when you're desperately hoping for a great tie-in, rather than a cheap cash-in.

The inside front cover
What are you, a dictionary?
Inside the covers are a selection of well-known quotes from the show: mostly from S1 at the front; mostly from S3 at the back. (S2 gets a bit of a raw deal!) The first actual section is a word-for-word retelling of the opening of the series pilot, using screenshots from the ep. I found it mildly irritating that this came before the contents page, which is well laid out. Then we have introductions by Jason Thiessen and Meghan McCarthy, followed by a foreword by Lauren Faust. The fact that she agreed to be involved in the production of this book gives early reassurance.

The Elements of Harmony contains ten chapters, dealing with characters, places and concepts — in particular the book's namesake artefacts, which deservedly get a chapter all to themselves. After an episode guide comes a full lyrics listing for the show's songs (oddly excluding the main theme!) and finally a short chapter about MLP's wide appeal. This isn't entirely successful because it sometimes seems to be trying rather too hard to avoid talking about bronies: actually, the B-word isn't used once in the book, surely a conscious decision.

Cloudsdale ponies character guide
The book's one and only glimpse of Derpy: unnamed and eyes closed
The character guides are pretty well done on the whole, and include most of the significant characters we've seen on the show. There are one or two omissions, of which Crackle may be the most disappointing, but nearly everyone gets at least a quick mention. The Mane Six and Spike (whose entry is heart-warmingly placed next to Twilight's) get the fullest treatment, of course. There are some oddities with the naming: Cloudchaser becomes Stormwalker, for example. And I suppose we'll just have to get used to "Sweetie Drops"...

Sprinkled moderately through the book are little nuggets of information from Lauren Faust and the show's current creative team. These are well worth reading, and although some are straightforward (McCarthy's cutie mark would be a typewriter) some are real eye-openers: who knew that an early draft of "The Cutie Pox" included a Scootaloo/Sweetie Belle rap? Also included are a number of pieces of concept art, mostly drawn by Faust. We've seen many of them before, but they do make a nice inclusion in a book like this.

Lauren Faust interview
If this section doesn't interest you, you're in the wrong fandom
The highlight of the entire book is the six-page interview with Lauren Faust. There are only the most glancing references to the direction the show has taken since her departure, but Faust answers a wide variety of questions. Most satisfyingly, she passes on information that, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't appeared anywhere before. For example, she feels that Trixie, should she let her jealousy of Twilight fester, has the potential to become "a significant villain". There's more, but come on, buy the book!

The least interesting part of The Elements of Harmony is also the longest: the inevitable episode guide. This allots a two-page spread for each of the 65 eps we've seen so far, each of which get a potted write-up and a couple of pictures, usually one screenshot and one vector. Oddly, the pilot is listed as The Magic of Friendship rather than the more familiar Friendship is Magic. I can only assume that this was done to avoid confusion with the name of the show itself, but I don't recall ever seeing the episodes given this new title before. Mind you, "Art of the Dress" is listed as "Stitching it Together" in the lyrics section, so what do I know?

Episode guide for "Read It and Weep"
This seemed an appropriate choice for a book review
More seriously, there is the odd plain and simple error. The entry for "Sleepless in Ponyville" claims that Scootaloo thinks she hears the Headless Horse outside, so rushes out to "track it down" and falls into the river while "[g]alloping around". Wrong in all three respects: she thinks the Headless Horse is in the cave, so rushes out to get away from it, and it's while she's scooting that she falls into the river. As another example, the Ursa Minor is bizarrely coloured a strange shade of green in the "Boast Busters" entry.

It's not always entirely clear who this book is aimed at. As already mentioned, here's not a single use of the word "brony", and nor do we hear about cons and the like even in the short chapter dealing with FiM's wide appeal. On the other hand, the reading level of the book is way above that of the show's target audience, making use of words like "dysfunctional" — though to be fair, the show itself consistently aims high in these matters too. My own view is that this is very much a book for the older fanbase, but that Snider (well, probably Hasbro really) shied away from making that too obvious.

Concept art of AJ by Lauren Faust
Probably not Fluttershy
The Elements of Harmony is nice to hold and read, it contains some genuinely new information and it's reasonably priced at about £10 in the UK. On the downside, there are a few sloppy errors (Mitch [MA] Larson's surname is mis-spelt at least once) and the space taken up by the episode guide means that there's not enough room to give all the fan-favourite characters a proper write-up. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book. It may not be everything I hoped for, but it goes much further than I feared.

  • Very nicely designed and satisfying to hold
  • Real nuggets from Faust and the show team
  • Well illustrated, with well-reproduced drawings
  • A mostly reliable reference guide for checking facts
  • Sensibly priced
  • A few surprisingly sloppy errors, especially in the episode guide
  • Not a real "behind the scenes" book
  • The song lyrics section feels a bit bare


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, I agree: it's an excellent book. Every MLP fan should have it. :)