FimFiction Link - Short ID: 506017/night-shift
Published: Oct '21
Moral of the story is: don't trust those dirty griffons.
Here we follow Sword Glitter on a dangerous patrol in a seedy part of Canterlot, where she runs into trouble. The story essentially entirely focuses on the Royal Guard, depicting an on-duty shift, which I don't believe is something you see very often.
First, the good. Overall, I liked the narrative quite a bit. The Royal Guard is just the right blend of friendly and professional to come off as what looks like a competent yet not dismal military unit (or at least it comes off as such to me, who has zero actual experience of real military, kek). I'm not sure if the "sadistic" officer was really necessary, but I'm only saying this in hindsight - he didn't jump out at me as out of place as I was reading. Overall, the setup for the story works well, introduces Sword and her unit and provides some very nice characterisation for both of those.
I very much liked your depictions of Sword performing guard duty; her line of thinking as a guard and her professionalism mixed with the idealism and, well, "friendly pony values" for lack of a better word, come off pretty well. Importantly, while she considers her first duty as a Royal Guard being the safeguarding of citizens, when push comes to shove you show her handling herself very well under pressure, in a way that seems to indicate high-quality training without coming off as out of character for her earlier depictions; and, having built up this image of a well trained Royal Guard, this allows the fight scenes to proceed without feeling like she's overpowered or in over her head.
That is, at least, until one of the griffons claims he used to be the bodyguard of King Grover himself. Now, in the meta-narrative, I get that you wanted to set up Sword as a particularly promising guard in order to lead in to Pheonix Squad; nevertheless, there's no indication anywhere in the story that she's particularly skilled, or excels in her unit, or anything like that. The impression I got of her was that of a dilligent, honourable Guard, with great integrity and clearly devoted to her duty, but not otherwise a standout in terms of capabilities or skill. And yet, King Grover's retired bodyguard didn't stand a serious chance against her in relatively straightforward one on one combat, not to mention that his henchmen - whom he was apparently leading on illegal operations that had evaded multiple attemps by elite forces like the Battlemages to shut them down - all turned out to be basically pushover thugs.
Before that reveal, the action felt really well measured, not too flashy, not too boring, not too absurd or unrealistic. A single guard defeating a group of four mean griffon thugs? With the predator's advantage the griffons get, only excellent guard training could carry a pony to victory, and Sword demonstrated just that. But when it turns out to be an elite smuggling ring? It feels a bit absurd.
On the same point, how come this "elite smuggling ring" who'd evaded law enforcement for so long actually got themselves surprised by a routine guard patrol? How did they last without getting busted before then? They were absolutely not acting like high-profile smugglers when Sword found them, but rather exactly like the mean low-life thugs I thought them to be at first.
Overall, the story sits in an odd place for me. I really liked the narrative, I really liked Sword's characterisation and I liked the depiction of the Royal Guard in general, I really liked the action scenes. But then this detail about who the griffons really were makes me unsure about this whole thing. The only way to reconcile it in my mind is to assume the griffon smugglers were basically just thugs after all, except maybe the ex-bodyguard but he might've been retired and old; but then that makes complete fools of the Battlemages and all the forces that had been trying to pin this "smuggling ring" down for some time, apparently. Given how the Royal Guard is depicted as a competent military unit, I would have expected Equestria's elite units to also live up to expectations as elite military units, so I'm left being unsure what to thing. It's that, or Sword is an absolute legend, and somehow nobody in the Guard noticed that and so she got stuck as a normal, average Guard despite not belonging there at all.
On a meta level, I think it was mentioned that the purpose of this story was to show that Sword was a very competent Royal Guard even before the events of Phoenix Squad and develop her characterisation, and I'm happy to say that I think it achieves this (perhaps even a bit too much, as discussed above - even in Phoenix Squad, she's claimed to be very competent but not otherwise exceptional as a Guard, IIRC). It certainly does develop her character.
One last thing maybe worth mentioning is on the worldbuilding aspect. The "dirty griffons/minorities" angle made me smile, but maybe it was a bit on the nose. The existence of a "creaturetown" in Canterlot is interesting; but I think, tying into my review of A Hearth's Warming Patrol, it really sits there on the line of showing Equestria isn't a cartoon utopia, without descending into grim and depressing cynical realism. Canterlot still feels like a welcoming and safe pony city I'd love to live in, overall. Here, in fact, the fact that the griffons were part of a particularly notorious ring - and not just common thugs - helps uphold this feeling; you wouldn't expect to meet something like that every day, even in the seedy district.
'Night Shift' is a ten thousand and two hundred-word oneshot. A royal guard mare gets to patrol the worst part of Canterlot. She stumbles into a group that really didn't want to be found.
The thing that impressed me the most about this story was how lifelike the characters felt. While there are one or two points where I think the author goes a bit overboard, otherwise there is serious chemistry between the secondary characters and the protagonist, despite most of them not even being around for that long. The stand-up act in the beginning was genuinely funny for instance and, while it's not the most original thing ever, the military banter between the guards is quite fun as well. Glitter's ambush on the Griffons does stretch believability a bit, with how drawn out it is, but I'm willing to ignore this because it serves as a pretty funny scene and buildup as well for the action. Also adding some fantasy-racism and making parts of Canterlot seem less than welcoming is a really nice touch. While I have no issue with fics depicting the city as perfect, I do think something like this is a believable and logical way of justifying the need for large guard divisions and having them be active. Plus it also gives the ponies a bit more depth as well.
Speaking of which, the fight scene is the one aspect of this story I'm most ambivalent about. I want to emphasize that I really enjoyed the choreography: Glitter breaking up her opponents into more manageable chunks and dealing with them in vastly different ways is great. However - and to be perfectly clear, this is a very subjective complaint, that likely won't apply to many other readers - I'm really not a fan of the old "reinforcements arrive at the last possible moment when it doesn't matter anymore" trope. It's tried and true, sure, but it always feels a bit disappointing. Personally I would have preferred, if the other guards drop in after Glitter dealt with 2 or 3 of the assailants, allowing her to have her moment to shine, but still keeping things somewhat grounded. Her not being able to deal with Grover's ex-bodyguard and only being able to avoid him would have even mostly solved the issue the previous reviewer mentioned that the group should have been way too skilled for Glitter to handle, in a way that still doesn't lessen her skills. Still, this was not a dealbreaker and the actual fight-scene more than makes up for it.
Glitter giving Lance her scarf and him checking her out feels a bit of a Chekov's gun that's left unfired. My assumption is that the author intends to softly build the relationship between these characters through multiple stories, but taken in a vacuum it feels like a plot-point that never pays off.
Overall: 7/10 It's a shame this story remained so unknown because it features lovely prose, colorful characters and a great fight scene. Can recommend.