(originally posted sometime in 2007… major edits)
Included in this review are the first six books written by Frank Herbert, not the subsequent books written from his notes by his son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson.
Author: Frank Herbert
Original Publishers: Ace and Putnam
Publishing Time Frame: 1965-1985
Official Website: http://www.dunenovels.com
It is important to note that Dune is a series unlike most other science fiction or fantasy series. While there is a large, overall storyline that encompasses all of the six books, each book is not individually dependent upon that storyline. Even though the second book, Dune Messiah, firmly establishes the 5,000 year time frame of the remaining novels as “the Golden Path” and ties them all loosely together, each novel itself represents only the briefest, and perhaps most critical of periods along that path.
Because of this, it is not only possible, it is almost essential to judge each book on its own as well as a contributor to the larger story arc (such as you should/could with a series like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire).
All in all, the series as a whole is strong. The middle two books, plagued by an all-knowing, future seeing character, are forced to pare down on very specific issues with Herbert playing a very delicate game of show and tell. Having a major character who knows everything that will happen over the course of the next 25,000 years makes for some interesting writing as Herbert dances around what the future holds for the series without giving too much away about the future of the individual book. The plodding of those two books, however, is more than made up for in the four that bookend them.
What sets this series above most others is its sheer scope. Encompassing a time line of some 7,500 years, Herbert was able to justifiably link the first book, Dune, with the last, Chapterhouse: Dune with room for many more stories to be added up by faithful fans and devoted children (as Brian Herbert has proven). Below, I’ll discuss the six books individually.
Author: Frank Herbert
Originally Published: 1965
More than forty years after its initial publication, Dune remains a pivotal book in genre fiction and is easily the most significant of the series. It is here that Herbert lays the groundwork for the remaining books, and of them all, Dune contains the most complete and, in my opinion, most compelling story. On the surface it is a story of political intrigue and maneuvering, but through Herbert’s deft characterizations and robust world-building, the issues he addresses parallel issues we are still facing today.
Set outwards of 20,000 years in the future, the primary storyline revolves around the political struggles between three noble houses, House Corrino, House Harkonnen, and House Atreides (these houses are detailed as preludes to Dune in volumes of their own by Herbert’s son Brian and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson. I have not read these volumes.). The story revolves around the struggle for supremacy and control of a single planet, Dune. This struggle incorporates political, economic, religious, and even mystical intrigue and manipulation, and serves as an accurate commentary and discussion on the state of social awareness in the 1960’s.
Perhaps the only issue I take with the book is that it is written in the rather uncommon 3rd person omniscient point of view, which allows Herbert to expand upon the internal musings of all of his characters at any given moment. At times the resulting “head hopping” can get confusing, and moving from one character to another in this manner takes a while to get used to, as there is no specific structure Herbert employs to bring a sense of order to the narration. And with so many different characters, the larger scenes can quickly become almost overwhelming. This PoV does, however, provide for a much more robust character creation process, and allowed Herbert to build very strong characters much quicker than he would have been able to otherwise.
Dune remains as topical today as it did in 1965 and maintains a significance few works are able to achieve. Its many themes range in subject from ecology to religion, pacifism to militarism, and mysticism to ancestor worship. The story itself is one of ascendancy, revenge, destiny, and love. It is complex and told with an almost unbiased historical bent, yet having access to inner thoughts, motivations and intentions for each and every character makes this an unexpected and immensely personal experience.
Title: Dune Messiah
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Originally Published: 1969
Dune Messiah picks up twelve years after the close of Dune. While the basic story is wholly dependent upon the first book, Herbert successfully created a sequel able to stand on its own without having intimate knowledge of it’s predecessor. Some of the finer details would be lost, to be sure, but the story itself would remain complete.
The difference in the two books is immediately apparent, however. The thematic issues in Dune Messiah are much more focused than in the original. Even the size of the book, a mere 220 pages, reflects this concentration. In fact, throughout the remaining books, Herbert seems to focus upon one of the themes initially presented in Dune and explore it more fully and more singly than in that original. Here, it is the robust exploration of religion that Herbert revolves around, and, unfortunately, this singularity leaves Dune Messiah feeling somewhat incomplete. It doesn’t have the rich, all encompassing societal reach that Dune introduces and maintains, and therefore seems at times to be almost myopic in scope. The story itself, while a highly enjoyable read, seems secondary and in place only to serve as a launching point for the four books to follow.
Title: Children of Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Originally Published: 1976
Nine years after the close of Dune Messiah, the new Emperor’s children are coming of age in a time of massive social and economic change.
This is one of the weaker novels of the series. The characters are not nearly as well explored or complex than in the previous novels. They are of singular vision with little happening to change their steadfast natures. Duncan Idaho is easily the single most developed and complex character, and his storyline, though it plays only a secondary role in the overall plot of the book, is easily the most compelling in the novel.
As in Dune Messiah, Herbert latches onto a single theme from Dune and explores it more fully, and with much the same result. His explorations are interesting, and in a few cases remarkably profound, but the story he tells seems secondary (and the characters seem tertiary) to these explorations. The thematic issues he focuses upon are those of social and economic change within a society based upon tradition and ancestor worship, along with a theoretical exploration of foretelling the future. These explorations are amazingly thorough, but again, rather than serving the story, they story seems intended to serve the explorations, which, in my mind, lessens the novel as a whole.
Title: God Emperor of Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Originally Published: 1981
First and foremost, without knowledge of the previous books, the premise for God Emperor of Dune is, at best, weak. Herbert evidently was well aware of this, as the early chapters are filled with a rehashing of information from the previous three novels. Without this, there is simply no way God Emperor of Dune would have stood on its own. Perhaps the result works better on a reader new to the series, or as a reader removed from the series by 26 year span of publications, but for someone reading the novels back to back, it made the first 150 or so pages agonizingly and monotonously familiar. Beyond those initial pages lies Frank Herberts thorough exploration of religious fanaticism through the 4,000 year old Leto II, the seemingly immortal Emperor of Dune.
Herbert also breaks from the style of the previous novels in that great sections of narration are preaching dialogue from Leto II. It came to my attention mid-read that this novel was originally written in first person, which explains this to a large degree. Unfortunately, Herbert was less than successful in migrating back to the now familiar third person omniscient and the entire novel suffers greatly because of it.
Once again, the story of Duncan is easily the most enjoyable and entertaining, as he is the only character who seems affected by the situation around him, and the only character who experiences any kind of personal journey or change. Everyone else is rather steadfast in their natures, leaving them quite flat and predictable. This extends even to Leto II. Even though his speeches and sermons reveal tremendous amounts of information about him personally and about his intentions and designs, new and unknown information doesn’t seem to affect him in any significant manner.
Because of the tremendous amount of soliloquy performed by Leto II, this novel comes across more as a series of essays punctuated by minor storylines than a full novel with thematic concerns. Of all the novels, this one most of all seems to serve the primary purpose of acting as a bridge between events. It almost seems as if Herbert wanted to get on to another aspect of the universe he created, but felt he was unable to do so until he made the reader more fully aware of what exactly lay upon Leto II’s “Golden Path.” And though the story of Duncan breaks up the “info-dumping” speeches of Leto II, it isn’t enough to really save God Emperor of Dune from itself.
Author: Frank Herbert
Originally Published: 1984 and 1985 respectively
There is no way to separate these two novels, as there simply isn’t a complete story contained within either one individually, and neither one is able to stand on its own as even an average read. Together, however, they make for a rich, complex, and potent ending that actually stands out among previous books as the best writing and most enjoyable read since the original Dune 20 years previous.
Taken as a series, which I firmly believe you must do with these two books, Herbert returns to the style of the original, and the results are more than satisfying. The story is complex and the characters rich and deep. Gone is the dependence on knowing the future, and the delicate dramatic dance Herbert was forced to do is able to be cast aside, allowing him to tell the story without fear of having a single, all-knowing character reveal too much, too eary. The storylines entwine and evolve throughout the two books. At times they seem to drag slightly, but the culmination in Chapterhouse Dune makes it all worthwhile. All in all, the two book series eclipses Dune Messiah as the strongest of the Dune followups.
Taken singlulary, Heretics of Dune stands slightly lower than Chapterhouse Dune only because there is no adequate resolution to the ongoing storylines. Had I been forced to wait the year between publications, my opinion Heretics would likely be lower as I would have found myself less than satisfied with the cliff-hanger type ending Herbert employed (that said, had I been forced to wait the four years between publications of, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, my opinion of God Emperor may well have been higher. Funny how that works.)
A final thought on the series…
With the release of Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune, Brian Herbert has reportedly assembled the notes and final outlines of the series and concluded it as his father originally intended. I haven’t read either of these books, although I probably will one day. The problem is, I actually like the way Chapterhouse ends the series. So much of the series was spent struggling for survival with bleak glimpses of the future, the ending was refreshing. It stands well in contrast with what precedes it. More importantly, however, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow. It is the end of the story, but it isn’t the end of the characters existence. I like that in an ending. If I discover that Hunters and Sandworms finally lays to rest all the unanswered questions or wraps up the first six books nice and pat… Well, I think I will prefer to pass on Brian’s ending, and keep my fond memories of the world his father Frank created.