Fanfiction – A Prince’s Duty

…and, in case you’re not into Naruto, here’s another one I had waiting in the wings:

A Prince’s Duty by BonusPoints

For all that Ranma ½ has a gender-transformative curse as such a central element of its narrative, there aren’t enough Ranma ½ fics that both attempt to focus on how it affects the characters psychologically and succeed at doing it.

Even worse, it’s almost impossible to find any stories that give Prince Herb of the Musk significant character focus, psychological or otherwise, since he’s from the half of the manga that never got adapted into the anime… this is one such fic. Not only that, it’s a story where Herb is a main character, the story starts out being told from his perspective, and it leans about as far toward “character piece” as you can go.

It goes into lots of satisfying detail on Herb’s motivations and thought processes. Just as important, it gives him opportunities to show that, when not being pissed off by Ranma, he’s as skilled in diplomatic discourse and as interested in acquiring politically important information as is appropriate for someone of his station, and it makes good use of the opportunity to use that princely objectivity to get a second perspective on Ranma’s canon situation. That is what a character piece should be… especially when you understand your characters and your readers well enough to use a line like this.

Herb was finding actively revealing her curse to be something too embarrassing to so much as attempt. She would leave that for Ranma to figure out.

It also has an interesting thread that never had time to play out in full before the story ended, but still helps to grease the wheels and make things interesting. Upon encountering Ranma at the Nekohanten, Lime jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Herb has secretly always been a girl and that “he” came to Japan to pursue Ranma as someone who can be a wife in public and a husband in private. Mint tries to correct him, but gets convinced instead, and Herb mistakes their innocent loyalty to him for a proper understanding of the situation.

It also doesn’t skimp on giving some character to anyone who gets a scene from their perspective. For example:

Ryoga’s idea of conversation seemed to consist mainly of bringing up random subjects, then looking around with a flushed face, before repeating the process over again. Mint flinched at the raw ineptitude the bandanna-clad youth was exhibiting. It reminded him of the very first time he had seen a woman. ‘What’s his excuse,’ the Musk warrior wondered.

That said, within the scope of what did get written, I think it’s reasonably obvious that the intent was to build up to a Ranma-Herb pairing built around only Herb’s female form being close enough to human to be able to have children with other humans. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not specifically against such a pairing, but even something this well-written does flirt with feeling contrived in how it keeps the misunderstanding about Herb’s true gender going. (Even if it does make for a very elegant way for Ranma to unknowingly reveal the solution to Herb’s problem in chapter 7.)

Despite all that, what I found most noteworthy on re-reading it was actually one of the least memorable things… It’s one of those rare stories that truly knows how to use flashbacks and time cuts properly, bouncing back and forth without making me reluctant to follow. Usually, flashbacks prompt at least a bit of resistance, because they pull me away from what they’ve primed me to care about next… but, in this case, the story is staying close enough to canon , and we already have a solid understanding of how canon unfolds, and the writing carefully steers the reader to care about the character development in a way that doesn’t tie it to the events too strongly. As a result, carefully jumping back and forth in time can make the revelation of Herb’s character feel more consistent.

In fact, until Akane accidentally locks Ranma’s curse rather than Herb doing it on purpose, and makes Herb pause to think about what he was about to do, it’s believable that this could have been showing a different perspective on canon events. (A scene which is then repeated from Ranma’s perspective without it feeling boring or repetitive… like I said, this is how you do character writing.) For how brief it is, I think this moment is the most important to the plot, because, when set in a narrative which will build on it rather than quashing it, it’s one of those little “for want of a nail” moments. In this case, “for want of a nail, a bad first impression was lost and a spark of sympathy gained. For want of a bad first impression and a lack of sympathy, a prince’s hostility and lack of introspection was lost. For want of hostility and a lack of introspection, conversations were prompted. All for want of a horseshoe nail.”

I also find it amusing to see a scene where, when Ranma is puzzled at Herb neither wanting to kill nor woo him, and Herb points out that Ranma isn’t the catch he thinks he is, Ranma retreats to insults when his ego is threatened. Why? Because, it’s the first time I can remember seeing a scene where you have a male character nursing a bruised ego… in a way that strongly reminds me of how tsundere female characters react to emotional threats. (And then Lime interrupts, giving Herb a chance to realize the value in learning to not let himself be goaded by that, thus continuing a pattern of keeping things from degenerating without it feeling artificial, contrived, or forced.)

Back when I first discovered it just shy of a decade ago, I felt that it was the epitome of everything I wanted in such a fic, and it’s a real shame it’ll never be finished, but at least we got half a novel worth of text out of it. I do worry that how it was handling Herb and Ranma was steering into some grade-A tightrope-walking, but it didn’t jump the shark within what actually got written, so I’m giving it a 4.9 out of 5 for the too-convenient-for-the-author ways in which the miscommunication about Herb’s true gender persisted.

I just wish that it had stayed on the more psychological feel it had in chapters 1 through 5. I know characters like Ryoga had to come in eventually, and chapters 6 and 7 were when the other shoe dropped… but a guy can dream.

P.S. The amount of care and caution it spends on the interactions between Ranma and Herb reminds me of another unfinished fic that I really need to re-read and review at some point: Kunoification by Ozzallos.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Fanfiction – A Prince’s Duty by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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