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Judge it on its own merits - it is not holy writ!
on 24 November 2013
* Beware - this review contains spoilers * -
I underwent a bit of soul searching before I read this book, the first of Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson's two sequels to the original Dune Chronicles.
"Chapterhouse: Dune", the last of Frank Herbert's own 6 Dune novels does answer a lot of questions, but it was fairly clearly not meant to be the end to the series. Frank Herbert leaves several loose ends. At the end of the novel the latest Duncan Idaho, Miles Teg who is one of the finest new characters in the later novels, Sheeana and a host of BG dissidents take a giant no-ship from Chapterhouse and steal away into uncharted space. Amongst the ship's passengers is the last surviving Tleilaxu master, a ghola of Scytale from "Messiah". Unbeknownst to the crew, he has within his skin a nullentropy capsule containing cells from Muad D'ib, Kessica, Chani, Stilgar, Hawat, Leto II and other characters from the original novel. Throughout the book there have been constant hints about a great enemy that drove the Honoured Matres into the old empire, who are doubtless closing in upon it themselves. The ending of the book also introduces us to Daniel and Marty, two enigmatic figures, in the shape of an old man and woman who bear resemblance to Face Dancers from the Scattering. They possess knowledge and power beyond that of other characters, and they seek to capture the no ship bearing Duncan Idaho and the others.
Frank Herbert died before writing what he had started to refer to as Dune 7. This is where his son Brian Herbert, and writing partner Kevin J. Anderson come in. Over a period of years beginning in 1999 they wrote a trilogy of novels based on events leading up to the events covered in the first book, collectively titled Prelude to Dune, and another entitled Legends of Dune in 2002. I can't comment on these prequels, never having read them. Then in the early Noughties they announced that while searching Frank Herbert's papers they had found his notes for Dune 7, some thirty pages of them, and that they were going to write the novel themselves. This actually became two novels, and this is where we finally get to "Hunters of Dune", the first of them.
Over the last couple of months I've read all 6 original books again consecutively. Before even ordering myself a copy of "Hunters" I read a large number of reviews of this, and the final novel "Sandworms of Dune" , and the vast majority have been extremely negative. Now, the best, in fact only valid reason for writing a bad review of a novel is that you genuinely didn't like the book and didn't think it was well written. However this is a sequel to one of the best loved series of novels ever written in the genre, and when people have the extreme devotion to a set of books that many of the fans have to the chronicles of Dune, then they don't always think rationally or consider the new work on its own merits in a fair and reasonable fashion. With this in mind I promised myself that if I was going to read "Hunters" I was going to judge it fairly, and try to judge it by a few simple criteria, namely : -
Did it pick up the loose ends from "Chapterhouse" in a way that seems at all consistent with what has gone before?
Did it develop in ways that seem plausible with the overall direction of the previous novels?
Was the prose style readable or not?
Did it make me want to read "Sandworms" or not?
Now that I've read "Hunters" I have to say that in all honesty I think that a lot of the criticism of the book in the reviews that I've read is unfair, and some of it, grossly unfair. I've read a lot of criticism of the creation of the gholas of Paul, Chani , Thufir, Leto et al upon the no-ship Ithaca. Personally I thought that this was an interesting plot device, and it's difficult to argue that if Frank Herbert had not at least been thinking about the possibility of this, then he wouldn't have introduced Scytale's nullentropy capsule full of cells in "Chapterhouse". Likewise, if Scytale had such a capsule, then it's not unreasonable to suggest that other capsules might have been made by the Tleilaxu, and one of these falling into Honored Matre hands on Tleilax is perfectly plausible.
The majority of reviewers I've read were disappointed at the revelation of the true identities of Daniel and Marty, the great Enemy. They turn out to be Omnium and Erasmus, thinking machines exiled to the edges of the Universe following the Butlerian Jihad. Now, in a way I can understand the disappointment. If there's one thing that the Dune novels aren't really about, it's technology, which when you come to think about it is quite unusual for Science Fiction. But reading Heretics and especially Chapterhouse I can't say that this wasn't what Frank Herbert was hinting. It does make some kind of sense that the greatest threat to the organic universe comes from the inorganic. The Butlerian Jihad has been there in the background since the first great novel that started it all. So while it wasn't what I expected - I don't know what I expected - I can't say that it wasn't right. Yes, the machines Omnium and Erasmus were created in the authors' own prequel novels, but so what? Maybe it wasn't what Frank Herbert intended, but then unfortunately he isn't around any more to tell us exactly what he did intend. Which incidentally leads us to an interesting digression.
Conspiracy theorists point to the lapse in time between Frank Herbert's death, and the discovery of his Dune 7 notes. Shades of Leto II's hoard at Dar es Balat! All I can say about the theory is that if this was a fabrication designed to gain acceptance for "Hunters" and "Sandworms" , then it didn't work very well. But Kevin Anderson has gone on record to say that the original notes were shown to their publishers, and I'll be honest, you don't bring more people in on the secret if you're trying to preserve a lie, especially if it's a lie you didn't need to make in the first place. Besides, the question mark over the existence of the Dune 7 notes is, at best, an irrelevance. If the novel is plausible and enjoyable then it makes little difference whether it was based on notes by Frank Herbert or not. Likewise, if it's a turkey, then it's still a turkey whatever its origin.
So much for the loose ends from Chapterhouse. I can't agree with criticisms of Herbert Jr.'s and Anderson's prose as `turgid' either. Granted that their style is not as rich nor quite as compelling as Frank Herbert's, but neither does it demand quite as much of the reader. It's certainly more than adequate for the task in hand, and if it is, therefore, a slightly easier read than some of the original 5 sequels then that's not necessarily a drawback. If there are times when the novel seems to be taking a long time to get where it's going, it's not the fault of the prose style.
In saying that I think some of the criticism made of the novel is unfair, I'm not saying that there are not criticisms to be made. The structure of the book becomes rather predictable. It is organized in sections that take place three years after the escape from Chapterhouse, then the next five years, and so on. Within each section there's a bit on the ship, Ithaca, probably with Duncan and Miles combining just in time to get the ship to jump in space and escape Daniel's and Marty's tachyon net. Then there's a bit on Chapterhouse with Murbella organizing another raid against another renegade Honored Matres stronghold, or carrying it out. Then there's a bit with the renegade Honored Matres and their axolotl tank projects on Tleilax. Then another bit on the Ithaca, then back to Murbella, and so on and so forth. It leads one to come to the conclusion that a fair amount of the novel is padding. You could probably cut the book to two thirds of its current length, and it wouldn't be any the worse for it. But, and this is a crucial point to consider, you can say that about some of Frank Herbert's own sequels - "God Emperor" comes irresistibly to mind.
While I'm making my own criticisms I did find that the chapter heading quotations didn't ring true for me in this novel. Maybe Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson just don't have the level of philosophical understanding to deliver on this level. I can't say that this greatly reduced my enjoyment of the book, though.
Did "Hunters of Dune" make me want to read "Sandworms of Dune", then? Yes, it did, and it's already on order. I don't say that "Hunters" is necessarily quite as good as the two novels that it immediately follows, "Heretics" and Chapterhouse". It lacks a little in characterization compared with those, although I have to say that I found the captured Lost Tleilaxu Master Uxtal interesting, and the Harkonnen ghola was drawn with some verve and wit. However, and this is important, I don't see that it is hugely inferior in quality when compared with Herbert's last two Dune sequels. All of which begs the question - why has it earned such opprobrium from legions of the series' fans?
Well, this is just my opinion, and by all means feel free to disagree. When a novel, or a series of novels or films acquires this kind of cult following, then the fans come to feel a strange kind of ownership of the works in question. They cannot be rational and dispassionate about it. They feel that the legacy of the work is to be jealously guarded. The words `cult following' are appropriate, since they conjure up images of religion, and the way that I read a lot of the criticism of "Hunters" is that many of the reviewers seem to regard it as `sacrilege'. Not that many of them use that word to describe it. The original author is allowed - sometimes grudgingly - to take the work in directions that the acolyte reader would not have imagined, expected or wanted, but nobody else is. Thus we see Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson being treated as true heretics of Dune, since few acknowledge that a lot of the plot elements they dislike so much in "Hunters" are at least alluded to in "Heretics" and/or "Chapterhouse", and in fact in a number of cases it goes beyond mere allusion. I respectfully suggest that many of those who so actively disliked "Hunters" maybe didn't really like the two predecessors either, but to admit that, even to themselves, really would be sacrilege.
So we come to the crux. If you didn't like "Heretics of Dune" and "Chapterhouse: Dune" then do not read "Hunters of Dune" because you won't like it either. If you did enjoy these last two original sequels, then by all means read "Hunters of Dune", but do it as a reader, not a disciple. Try to forget the received wisdom that says,
a) each sequel in a series is inferior to the book that preceded it
b) any sequel by someone other than the original writer is vastly inferior to the work of the original writer,
and give it a fair trial. You never know, you might find that you rather enjoy it.