FimFiction Link - Short ID: 14777/contraptionology
Published: Mar '12 — Jul '13
Contraptionology! is a pretty good mediumfic/novel (~130k words) plagued by a series of tiny problems and two major ones.
But before I start praising and complaining, let's get something out of the way: Don't make the same mistake as I did and approach this story according to its tags. Although it's wacky and doesn't treat itself too seriously, it's still primarily an adventure story, with comedy sprinkled in here and there.
To start from the top, the core idea had a lot of potential. Ponies of Ponyville building cartoonish science contraptions sounds like a great hook to a wacky adventure. And it is! ...except that this "hook" happens around ch.7 (of 21) and quickly fades away to the background.
So yeah, about those two major flaws that I've mentioned. The first thing most readers will notice is the absolute GLACIAL pacing in the opening third of the story. In hindsight these chapters are all somewhat setting up the finale but unless you've already read the fic, it'll feel like an absolute waste of your time for a long, long time. While I'm on the topic of pacing, I need to menton that the pacing on the in-scene level is really good. This disparity is understandable when you consider that, prior to Contraptionology!, Skywriter has never written anything longer than a oneshot.
The second -- and arguably even bigger -- flaw of the fic is its general lack of focus. I got the impression that it doesn't really know what it wants to be. It starts out as slapstick comedy, delves into a weirdly out-of-character character drama, proceeds to steer towards being a typical adventure fic, then takes a few abrupt brakes for the "comedy" scenes right in the heat of the action, and ends back as an adventure story for the landing. The message of the story is also undermined by this lack of focus, to the point that the fic's finale partially contradicts its main message.
I'm not saying that such mashups can never work but in this case the attempt fell flat, at least in my opinion. For example, right before the penultimate sequence, when the lives of several characters are on the line, the story takes its time adding a ~2.5k words long scene which serves little purpose except for jamming as many sexual innuendos as possible (and then some). I admit that the scene was moderately funny but at that point in the plot it was about as tactful as a piglet on a dance floor.
The comparison to pigs wasn't accidental, of course, because now I'll say a couple words about the writing and the narration. In short: the writing is good. Even though some dialogues felt a bit dry to me, Skywriter's prose is light and pleasant to read. The writing stays far from the dreaded 'purple prose' boogeymare while still managing to sprinkle some nice descriptions here and there.
The narration in Contraptionology!, however, is a very peculiar beast. It's not just first person narration, it's first person Applejack narration. Prepare for many "ah"s, "ain't"s and farm analogies. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but I personally liked it. They'd probably get tiring in larges doses but I've read at most three chapters at a time and never felt like it was a problem.
And because I don't know where else to put it, I'll mention that the jokes vary in quality but at least some are written well. You have some bad puns, almost-good puns, bad situational jokes, decent situational jokes, the invention of L.H.C. (Large Hadron Cider, a contraption that produces a cider with over 100% purity by distilling the beverage into large and small "cider quarks") and one particularly sneaky incest joke.
One more thing to spare you a massive disappointment. It's a slight spoiler though, so if you prefer to avoid those just ignore this paragraph. The second half of the story builds towards two grand reveals in the finale, teasing them at least once per chapter. You might think that both of these questions immediately have laughably obvious answers and... you'd be right. There's no subversion of expectations. After so much hype, the non-reveals felt like a joke, except not the funny kind.
Despite all my ranting, I'd still advise everyone to read the standalone prequel oneshot -- Infernal Machines(*). If I was rating just that story, I'd give it an 8/10.
After that, ask yourself how much you'd want to read more of it. If the answer is "enough to slog through ~6 very mediocre chapters", then I'd recommend you to also read Contraptionology!. You probably won't be disappointed. But if you didn't care much for Infernal Machines then don't get baited into reading the sequel.
All in all, my final score is 6.5/10. It does feel pretty low for a story that I ended up enjoying despite its flaws, so once again I'd recommend checking out Infernal Machines before (You) decide to read Contraptionology (or not).
*https://www.fimfiction.net/story/11496/infernal-machines - it's essentially a standalone first chapter of Contraptionolgy