FimFiction Link - Short ID: 418498/good-trooper-gilda
Published: Oct '18 — Feb '19
'Good Trooper Gilda' is a one hundred and six thousand and eight hundred word-longfic. After her mother left her a debt she has no way of paying off, a young Gilda decides to fly away from her home, in hopes of finding a better place to live. During her escape, she and some others get in a fight with the Equestrian navy, who promptly defeat and capture them. From then on Gilda continues her life a a PoW/conscript, serving under an awfully familiar purple horse called Gleaming Shield. The story explores the unlikely duo's ascent in ranks, their valiant efforts to move forward a frozen conflict, and how they even manage to solve a few conspiracies on the way.
This fic feels in many ways special. The first, and most obvious, of these is its prose: 'GTG' is full of archaic words, specific military lingo and flowery descriptions, which, while I wouldn't call purple prose, are certainly more detailed than I would expect from a fic. This is actually one of the biggest (subjective) downsides of the prose as well: Several times during reading I was feeling just a bit lost. I still ultimately understood everything that happened, but there was almost always a slight uncertainty in the back of my mind. This isn't a judgement against the story, of course, I just want to emphasize that if you don't have a strong grip on the somewhat-more obscure parts of the English language and you aren't too familiar with military jargon and ranks, you should prepare to either consult a dictionary every once in a while or just brute-force your way through the narrative, piecing things together from context.
A distinct example of this is when Gilda is referred to "bat-hen" whenever her rank or name isn't used. For someone like me, who had never heard of what "batman" means in a military-context, the word was a complete head-scratcher, until a helpful comment under the story gave away the joke. Admittedly, most other examples aren't this egregious, I just wanted to show that this isn't a story that will put everything in your mouth pre-chewed. However, if one is willing to put this behind themselves, the story rewards them with terms and descriptions that make it feel like you've stumbled upon a genuine old story. Things like guns being called "gonne"-s and even the aforementioned "bat-hen" do wonders to one's immersion and while some of them may be hard to decipher at first, their inclusion definitely elevates the story instead of hindering it.
Complimenting the pretty prose is a very captivating setting. The world of 'GTG' and, indeed, much of the fic's themes themselves are a great mix of historical events and cultures.
The title and some of the events reference an old, WW1-era, Czech story titled 'The Good Soldier Svejk,' whose themes included the banality of war, something the 'Good Trooper' likes to put into focus as well. Similar parallels can be drawn between Shining Armor's assassination and the death of Archduke Ferdinand, and also how their respective countries reacted. Yet the story's main location, Trottingham, is inspired by the colonial times instead, as the city state has technically been under the occupation of Equestrian troops for a long time. Oh, and it has tribes inspired by the Scots. Finally, the way the city is divided into a pony and a griffon-side using a military checkpoint system reminded me somewhat of the Berlin wall.
However, despite these obvious or, in some cases, less obvious inspirations, the world of 'GTG' doesn't feel like a rip-off, nor a cheap hodgepodge of unrelated historical periods. The author put a lot of effort into establishing everything of this far bleaker AU in a logical and consistent way, from why Equestria is so militarized, to why Trottingham is so downtrodden even though the story makes it clear that Celestia is still trying to be as benevolent as she can be. What makes the experience even better is that despite the setting being so impressively broad, the reader never really feels lost. The author is only slowly introducing concepts whenever they are necessary, allowing the reader to memorize the setting at their own pace. The main driving force of this process is Gilda herself, who, after her less than successful escapade, ends up in the army and acts as a surrogate for the reader, as she pieces together how things work on this side of the ocean.
Speaking of whom, let's talk about the characters. There will be unmarked spoilers below, so if what you've read so far sounds promising, feel free to just drop the review and read the story. You will not be disappointed.
Gilda: The eponymous griffon and one of the two protagonists of the story. Gilda experiences massive character growth through the story in a way that feels very natural. She goes from being an unwilling, conniving, and uncaring conscript, to a surprisingly empathetic and responsible soldier, who's deeply concerned for both the soldiers under her command and her own officer, Gleaming Shield. The secondary plot of her also being a royal and her own loathing of this fact adds even more depth to her character, especially with how integral this revelation is to the plot. Her constant bickering with Gleaming is a great source of comedy, but also serves as a very nice and indirect way of showing how they slowly begin to respect and even like each other.
Gleaming Shield: The second protagonist, also known as - as everyone could guess from the moment she appears - Twilight Sparkle. Throughout the story, she acts as the quasi-guide to the reader, since being Gilda's commanding officer means she's the one who explains almost everything to her and sets some of the most important events in the story in motion. Similarly to Gilda, she also undergoes some subtle, but extremely important character growth as she goes from someone who despises the entire griffon race and almost revels in the idea that dozens of them are dying on the streets daily, to someone who cares deeply about Gilda and realizes that her blind hate was misguided and ultimately impeding. And while the way she snaps at anyone using her old name, her different cutie mark and her usually cold behavior at first implies that this pony is completely different from her show-self, as the story progresses and she warms up to Gilda, her more Twilight-ish behavior begins to shine through. Her fascination with books, bouts of anxiety and magical talent are still very much present, just subdued due to her trauma.
Lady George: For a character with such an odd name, she quickly grew on me. She is a Turul-bird - a mythological species of gigantic, sentient birds - and heiress to her kingdom. Or would be, if she wasn't forced to languish in Trottingham, due to her brother's coup. While she initially almost seems antagonistic, the charade is quickly up and she becomes one of the main supporters of Gleaming and Gilda, after they promise to help her out one way or another. Her cursed crown, which causes both ponies and griffons alike to hallucinate a handler, who speaks in her sake, while she appears as nothing more than a tamed Roc, is one of the main sources of comedy in this fic and it really works. The humor is never blatant and it never demands the focus of the plot, but every once in a while it slowly seeps in and nicely contrasts the story's otherwise bleak atmosphere.
Rarity: This is not FiM, so her role is somewhat minor in the grand scale of things, but regardless, she's both a very likeable and faithfully depicted character. Also, even though she might not do that much herself, it is through her that the characters are introduced to the guilds and of course George herself, both of whom act as major players in the story. The way the troopers almost immediately give her the deifying title of the "Stinging Needle" is also pretty amusing.
Pinkie Pie: In many fics, Pinkie instantly poisons the narrative. The moment she appears, things go off-track and the plot suffers. Not in the 'Good Trooper.' Pinkie in this story is genuinely one of the scariest ponies I've read about yet. As it turns out near the epilogue she's cursed with pre-cognition, so her plans are almost indecipherable to anyone else, yet they're dangerously effective. Her mental breakdown at the end of the story is eerie and it is commendable that the author didn't go for the much more obvious "she turns into Pinkamena" route. Despite being a "villain," who only appears a few times in the story, her menacing presence is squarely stamped on the later half of the story, from the moment she turns up, up to her eventual capture and defeat. She's an antagonist done really well.
Princess Cadance: Her depiction is probably one of my favorites in this fic. While the death of Shining Armor made a vengeful soldier out of Twilight, in Cadance's case it lead to an actual war. Her being the Princess of Love is twisted in a macabre way in this fic, as her ability to spread love is reinterpreted to control the very emotions others feel around her. Despite being someone, who really doesn't want anything bad, she's not only a very morally grey character, but also becomes downright intimidating in some of her scenes, where her powers get out of control and it is only due to her hoofmaidens' intervention that things don't become far, far worse.
Princess Celestia: The Princess, being nearly a continent away, is mostly only mentioned in the story until the very end. But when she does appear, her presence immediately overshadows everyone else. I really, really like how the fic, which until now was conservative with its typographic tricks, suddenly enlarged her monologue to be three or four times the size of normal text, further showing just how overwhelming she is. And yet, she's not the hurricane both the readers and the characters expect her to be. She's just as broken and downtrodden as everyone else, especially with the implied imminent return of Nightmare Moon, which will certainly put a massive strain on her and her already thinly-stretched and war-ridden empire. Her abdication really hammers it home, that while the world of 'GTG' isn't without hope, it is regardless very much a harsh and cold place.
The rest of the cast: There are quite a few more named characters, but I'd rather not go over them all individually. I'm happy to say that there aren't really any characters who feel out of place, most of them are either amusing enough to be enjoyable or neutral enough not to bother me. The only exception is Flag Staff, who to me felt way too over the top and unbelievable compared to the relatively grounded ensemble. The cast is also full of references to things like 'M*A*S*H' and even 'Forrest Gump,' so if you're into such things, you'll have a great time with the background characters.
With the characters out of the way, as much as I love this story, there are a few things that I didn't enjoy. For one, the early pacing of the story feels meandering and a bit weak. This wasn't really a major problem, because the setting itself was captivating enough to keep my attention, but until almost half of the story I wasn't sure what the end-goal of this fic was or why things happened they way they did. Though, if the idea of just watching the day-to-day life of a harsh world sounds intriguing to you, then you will most likely consider this a positive actually. Secondly, while the plot's main conflict is resolved pretty bombastically (in an almost too literal way,) the other subplots are very much sequel hooks and I'm not entirely happy about that.
Lady George's succession-struggle was set up as a major plot point, but then the story just decides that "well, what's happening in Trottingham is far more important" and then she's basically banished from the plot. Again, it's not the end of the world and it makes logical sense, but it wasn't very satisfying. Sunset's sudden arrival in the penultimate chapter, on the other hand, was far more jarring. The scene could have easily happened in the first chapter of the next book and it served as little more than as padding between Pinkie's breakdown and the already pretty sequel hook-ish epilogue. Finally, the heartsong scene was a complete miss for me. This will be very subjective, so again, I can easily imagine that for someone else this is a perfect way to end the story, but after so much gritty combat and scheming and whatnot, it felt silly that the issue is resolved by ponies and griffons breaking into song and waltzing into the city council's meeting. It was monumental, don't get me wrong, but it also felt kind of like a pretty deus-ex-machina parody ending. I can't find it in myself to be really angry about it, but I'm certainly not too happy either. Especially with how tense the scenes before and after it are.
Overall: 9/10 'Good Trooper Gilda' is truly a treat, featuring an adventurous story, charming prose, lovable and hateable characters, all packaged in a smart, not overly long, and mostly self-contained bundle. I can only recommend it.