There are two big challenges that face any writer of fiction. The first challenge is coming up with an interesting concept - whether it be speculation about future technologies, a world or society built on an atypical cultural foundation, or simply a kind of creature or magic. The second challenge is using that concept in a way that helps drive a narrative and make one’s story stand out from the crowd. It is deeply disappointing to find a book that appears to have met the first challenge, but fails to carry through on the second. This week’s selection for Down the Stacks is a trilogy by Jean Rabe: The Finest Trilogy, which, sadly, does not quite lie up to its lofty title.
The Finest Trilogy, consisting of Finest Creation, Finest Choice, and The Finest Challenge, takes place in a world of very low fantasy that could easily be exchangeable for Medieval Europe if it weren’t for the existence of the Finest and cults of dark magic. The world of Paard-Peran is overseen by a pantheon of five good gods counterbalanced by a pair of trickster gods, and for the sake of guiding humanity down virtuous paths out of their fallen state the good gods created the Finest - mystical horses who are assigned to protect and secretly guide people with the potential to make the world a better place. This system has been running since the dawn of time itself without humanity being the least bit aware of it, which is just how the Powers That Be want it.
The trilogy focuses on Gallant-Stallion, a Finest on his first assignment who gets wrapped up in plots by followers of the evil gods and discovers agents of darkness that the Finest were not previously aware of. Gallant-Stallion is being mentored by a veteran Finest as they act as part of a wedding party escorting the prince of Galmier to his bride in the neighboring kingdom, but the party is attacked by strange shadowy assassins on the road and only Gallant-Stallion and the prince’s two young cousins, Meven and Kalantha, escape with their lives. Gallant-Stallion figures one of the two kids is his charge and assumes it is Meven because he has become Galmier’s heir, only to later discover that he’s meant for Kalantha. The two kids and their horse struggle to survive as the mysterious assassins continue to hunt them and the assassins’ evil masters plot behind the scenes.
The great potential in this story is the existence of the Finest and their goal of guiding the best and brightest of humanity to improve the world. The concept is comparable to a similar system in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, where supernatural equines called Companions bond with gifted individuals and comprise a special corps of peacekeepers and soldiers for the kingdom of Valdemar. Where the Finest fall short of their inspiration, however, is that while Companions are clearly special and openly capable of telepathy, the Finest are not supposed to communicate to their charges nor give any indication that they are anything but ordinary horses. It leaves me to wonder just how the Finest are supposed to do their job, a quandary that Gallant-Stallion expresses often until he realizes he has the unique gift of telepathic communication with Kalantha (other Finest are shown to have unique gifts of their own, so this isn’t too much off a cop-out).
Even setting aside the poorly thought-out conceit of the Finest, the trilogy lacks impetus. Gallant-Stallion tries his best to protect his charge and discover just what the hay is going on in Galmier, but his charge is a ten-year old kid who doesn’t display exceptional intelligence or the ability to think things through before deciding on a course of action. Meven isn’t much better despite being older than Kal, and Rabe has a bad habit of killing off interesting side characters so that our beleaguered protagonists don’t have anyone but themselves to rely on in the long term. The villains are a bit more interesting in that their identities come as a legitimate surprise and they have some solid goals in place, but they are unable to carry the plot forward with enough presence to make up for the protagonists' blind flailing about and mere luck at survival. I had to drag myself through the second book, and the third failed to revive my stamina enough to make it through more than a couple of chapters.
I do not recommend The Finest Creation or its sequels. It moves to slowly, the protagonists are bland, and the plot does not have stakes that interest me.