• Let's Review: Siege of the Crystal Empire

    Greetings, MLP fans on the interwebs! Tis I, your humble sincere… I’m that guy with the beak who’s always getting blown up.

    The folks here at Equestria Daily invited me to become a contributor for comic book reviews. How about we start things off with Siege of the Crystal Empire? The Trade Paperback Book just hit store shelves today.

    Be warned, there are spoilers after the break!

     Now I am the prettiest princess!

    Siege of the Crystal Empire takes many of the lingering threads from King Sombra’s Fiendship is Magic issue and weaves them into a new story. Sombra’s childhood friend, Radiant Hope, returns to Equestria after a millennia-long absence. Her motives are unclear but the first goal is to gain entrance to the Crystal Empire’s castle. To do this, she recruits the aid of…
    For all your poorly-defined motives!

    These narrow-minded ne’er-do-wells disrupt the Crystal Faire preparations and swipe the Crystal Heart, leaving the Empire open to invasion by Queen Chrysalis and her Changelings. All this offers Radiant Hope the chance to sneak in and restore the fragmented King Sombra. And this time, he has a vocabulary.

    From there the situation escalates with rising anger on both sides, victims in the crossfire, and the growing threat the Umbrum horde. Many key plot points feature characters making mistakes in haste or anger. If you're looking for an Aesop element, the fallout from these poor decisions is good material. Such as Twilight lashing out at a critical moment, almost dooming Equestria. 

    The core of this story focuses not upon the Mane Six or even the princesses, but rather on Sombra’s choice between Radiant Hope’s encouragement and the Crystal Heart's prophecy. Is he the monster everyone thought or can he choose his own destiny?

    Radiant Hope acts as Sombra's conscience, na├»ve but loving. She above all characters determines the reader’s reactions to this story. Despite her attempts to guide Sombra, her own actions are, at best, morally questionable. She maintains that the imprisoned Umbrum are victims of the Crystal Ponies' prejudice. This would be an interesting conflict if not for the My Little Pony title. We know how this world works. Though the ponies err, they would never imprison an entire populace unless they were pure evil. This is a more cut-and-dry, right-and-wrong world. I would have found such a concept fascinating. It’s part of why I am a Radiant Hope fan, though I understand why she's drawn much scorn. Even the comic's villains taunt her intelligence. 

    The conflict is beautifully illustrated by Andy Price. Special props to any scenes involving Sombra’s shadow form or the Umbrum’s nightmare appearances. Characters remain expressive and dynamic. Just study a panel where Cadance realizes she may have rage in her heart. Her stare speaks volumes.

    Yet if there’s one thing IDW’s 4-part arcs consistently try, it’s putting too many players in too small a space. We have at least seventeen named characters featured, with two armies of supporting cast near the end. Reading through it all, I wonder if the story would have been strengthened by reducing the roster.

    The LNQEBNVNE are active antagonists for the first half of the story, only to reconsider their actions when it’s too late to change. And then they’re gone. No redemption, no apology, no resolution. We are left to assume that they are now fugitives. How fitting that the group's final words are, “What will Iron Will do now?”

    By contrast, Princess Cadance does not become proactive until the second half, having hidden from the conflict. She is brave and quick-witted in her single chapter to shine, but compared to Luna and Celestia’s expanded roles in the Nightmare Rarity and Reflections arcs, it seems she’s been shortchanged. Shining Jobber has it far worse, as his role is to be battered around by the villains and used as a bargaining chip. Similar fates for Celestia and Luna.

    It will serve you well!
    Also, Princess Luna, see me after class!

    The Mane Six are present, but have little impact on the story besides leading hijinks-filled combat. This might sound fun since many comic antagonists are defeated in similar battles, but those same characters behaved like buffoons throughout their stories. This comic asks that the audience fear the Umbrum. A goofy brawl isn't going to have the right impact.

    Taking stock, there are only five key characters. Sombra, whose decisions will shape the future. Radiant Hope and Rabia the Umbrum, who pull Sombra in two directions. Last but not least, Cadance and Twilight Sparkle. They know the most about Sombra and Radiant Hope’s history and act as Equestria’s defenders. Focusing the cast to these critical players would allow the story room to breath. That in turn could offer the audience the chance to empathize with Radiant Hope and allow Twilight and Cadance to consider their actions' impact.

    As it is, this story brings forth enjoyable ideas and questions about characters we assume we know. It treats Sombra with much more investment than the show. Yet each strength carries a shadow. The story is so over-ripe with characters that nothing can develop. The rushed pace keeps the tension, but with much less payoff.

    I’d encourage folks to give this a read for the alternate interpretation of Sombra and to view characters like Cadance in a different light. That comes with the caution that you may not agree with the presentations and the ending might not match anticipation.

    And whatever did happen to our lesser antagonists? 

    In MLP# 34–36, four beings committed crimes for which they were never tried. 
    Now fugitives from Equestrian justice, they live as soldiers of fortune. 
    Because reasons. If you have a scheme, if you need lackeys, 
    and if you can figure out their motivations, then maybe you can hire…
    Special props if you're old enough to get this joke!

    Twitter: Silver Quill