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Shadowhawk reviews the prequel trilogy set in the dim past of Frank Herbert’s Dune, when the Butlerian Jihad raged across the galaxy and mankind fought against the thinking machines for its very survival.
“Not as good as Herbert’s own masterpieces, the Legends of Dune novels are still good reading delving into the entire mythology of the master’s unique worlds.” ~The Founding Fields
Frank Herbert’s Dune and its sequels were among my formative reading during high school, at a time when I was dipping my toes into the waters of the wider science fiction/fantasy genre. In those short 3-4 years, I quickly devoured as much Tolkien, Feist, Clarke, and Asimov as I could, some of the greatest SFF authors of the last 100 years in my estimation. I talk about my love for Dune in a post entitled “Why I Love Dune?” on my blog, which you can read here. There’s just something so magical and so deeply alluring about the book that I hold it as the best SF novel ever written. Whether its his characters, or his worlds, or his attention to detail that pulls you in, Dune is most definitely a masterwork of the genre, in every sense of the word.
Following the legacy of a legend like Frank Herbert is no easy feat. He created something so groundbreaking that recreating that magic is next to impossible. I’ve definitely, in about 10 years of reading, not come across another novel like Dune, which is a book on its very own special plane of awesomeness. But, his son Brian and noted SFF author Kevin J. Anderson took on the task with gusto and have written several novels in those same worlds, stories spanning thousands of years and looking at his worlds through a very different lens. The Legends of Dune trilogy is one such effort. The duo take on the half-forgotten mythology of Dune as they seek to explain how the world that Frank Herbert created came to be, why all forms of thinking machines have been outlawed, how the various specialist organisations such as the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the Mentats, etc came to be. And the biggest question of all: what exactly was the Butlerian Jihad?
I’ve read these novels before, back in college about 4 years ago or so. Never finished the middle book for some reason, but did get around to reading the first and third in full. So, reading them over the last two weeks was mostly a nostalgia trip of sorts. Plus the fact that I kicked off my Dune-verse reading challenge, where I am aiming to read all of the novels in the setting over the coming 3-4 months. Anyways, that’s that, so expect to see reviews of the other novels, by the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson duo (henceforth referred to as “the duo”) and Frank Herbert alike, on the site in that time.
Reading these novels gives a very strange feeling to me as someone who has read the original double trilogy by Frank Herbert. His signature prose is, as I’ve said, not replicable, and the duo doesn’t try to either, but at the same time it feels as if there is something lacking, a necessary magical component that makes the novels transcend beyond the words on the pages. I’ve listened to the audio versions of the first three Dune Chronicles novels and the magic is alive in that format just as much as it is in print. The bottomline is that the duo’s writing isn’t on the same level as the master. It is somewhat disappointing, given that they writing in the same world and exposing the mythology of the setting, as well as what constitutes its ancient history.
All the same though, these novels gave me my “Dune-fix”, something I sorely needed after I finished reading Chapterhouse: Dune, the last Dune Chronicles novel penned by the master shortly before his death, back in twelfth grade. Being a prequel series set 10,000 years before the events of Dune there is an inherent epic quality to the trilogy, something very much akin to a greek tragedy, or what you might feel when reading The Iliad. Dozens of major and minor characters, frequently intersecting plot threads, all with a touch of fantasy to it.
The first novel, The Butlerian Jihad, sets out how this great conflict began in the first place. It introduces us to all the principal characters and shows human society as it is after nearly a thousand years of stalemated conflict against the power of Omnius, the great AI overmind which rules the Synchronized Worlds. The second novel, The Machine Crusade, is set almost two decades later and lays out humanity’s continuing struggle against Omnius, while a war is fought in the shadows by those among the League of Nobles who see the Jihad as nothing more than the stepping stones to power. Of all the three novels, this has the most emotional and heartbreaking of endings as two characters I really grew to care about suffered the most ignoble of deaths. The third novel, The Battle of Corrin, is set once again after a large gap of years, years in which the Jihad has stalemated once again. After certain scientific advancements are made and with a devil-may-care attitude, humanity proceeds to end the threat of thinking machines once and for all, but they falter at a key moment and must redress that oversight several years later in a final battle.
The character list for these novels could fit in a booklet of its own, there are so many of them! Xavier Harkonnen, Vorian Atreides, Titan Agamemnon, Serena Butler, Viceroy Manion Butler, Omnius, Seurat, Erasmus, Zufa Cenva, Norma Cenva, Tio Holtzmann, Lord Niko Bludd, Selim Wormrider, Iblis Ginjo, Aurelius Venport, Tuk Keedair, Ishmael, Naib Dhartha, Abulurd Harkonnen, Quentin Butler, Jool Noret, Istian Gloss, etc. The duo weave together all these disparate personalities and attitudes into a cohesive whole that sometimes makes you wonder how they kept it all on the straight and narrow. Sometimes certain characters get ignored and don’t show up until much later in the narrative, sometimes they show up with a high regularity, which often portends disaster of sorts.
Some of these names should be recognisable to anyone familiar with Frank Herbert’s stuff, while some are obviously new, and even among the “familiar” names, there is plenty of new things you wouldn’t have seen coming. Xavier Harkonnen of Giedi Prime’s House Harkonnen is a junior officer of the League military when we first meet him. Very unlike his later descendant Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Xavier is a devoted family man and a loyal soldier. Vorian Atreides is the genetic son of the Titan Agamemnon, who was a militant rebel in the days of the Old Empire before Omnius rose to power and has survived the millennium by preserving his brain, which can be installed in various cyborg bodies. Vorian is a high-level trustee of the Synchronized Worlds due to his parentage (Agamemnon preserved his sperm before making his transformation from human to cymek). Tio Holtzmann is the greatest scientist of the League, the man who designed the scrambler systems that destroy all gelcircuitry systems, the core hardware/software of any thinking machine. Serena Butler, Xavier’s fiancee, gave her name to humanity’s resurgent struggle against Omnius when the robot Erasmus killed her infant son Manion, named for her father. Selim Wormrider is the first human on Arrakis to ever ride a sandworm and it is he who changes Zensunni culture on the world and begins the age of the Free Men of Arrakis. Norma Cenva is the daughter of the Rossakian High Sorceress Zufa Cenva and it she who eventually invents the spacefolding technology, the work on which began in the years when she was Holtzmann’s assistant. And so on. Its a veritable playhouse of characters!
It is through these characters and more that we see the Butlerian Jihad begin and end. Each and everyone of them has a place in this epic. Some such as the quartet of Xavier, Vorian, Serena and Iblis, as well as Norma and Erasmus are given plenty of screen-time. Others such as Zufa, Tuk, Jool and Abulurd are never really developed fully and are mostly relegated to the sidelines, which is another negative of the novels. Given how big each of these novels already are, I think more time could have been spent on them, to more properly bring out their personalities.
The goal of this trilogy, as I see it is, is two fold: to tell the story of the Butlerian Jihad and its resolution, and also to show how the various specialist schools developed out of that conflict. The duo do an excellent job of the former, but the latter isn’t handled quite so well.
Vorian Atreides, given a painful life-extension medical treatment by his father, is the most central character in the novels as he is the only one of all of them who was there before the Jihad began and after it ended. The novels are almost his chronicles in that regard and the ebbs and flows of the Jihad are very much his own story as he sees family friends die all around him while he survives, becoming nothing more than a relic of the conflict in his old age, when Omnius is finally defeated after nearly a century of the Jihad. All the events that pop up over that time, whether its the slave revolt on Earth which ultimately results in a League attack that leaves it an irradiated nuclear wasteland, the League victories at IV Anbus and IX, the proliferation of the spice melange all across the League, the League disasters such as Poritrin and Parmentier, the cymek revolt against Omnius, the interference of the “brain-y” (pun intended) Cogitators who seek to negotiate a truce between all sides, and the ultimate battle on the primary Synchronised World of Corrin, it all gives off that epic feel that I mentioned earlier. And that’s something that the duo definitely get right, even though some of the events didn’t sit well with me, such as the fates of Ginaz Swordmaster Jool Noret or the interference of the Titan Hecate for example, but by and large, I really liked the narratives.
Watching the proto-Spacing Guild form was definitely a highlight of the novel, as was the formation of the Fremen culture on Arrakis. Norma and Selim are understated in the grand scheme of things, for their legends never filter down through the ages, but the novels do a great job of showing why and how they did what they did. Norma’s experiments under Holtzmann, whether improving on his inventions or busying herself with complexities of his gelcircuity scrambler equations that he himself isn’t aware of, are set out in a very thrilling way. Her trials and her sacrifices define who she is and her selflessness in everything she does is something that is shared only by Selim, Vorian Atreides and Xavier Harkonnen. Much as with Norma, we see Selim as a boy when we first meet him, but we watch him turn into a fierce leader who challenges his own culture and society, and ultimately achieves a nirvana of sorts, when he “merges” with Shai-Hulud, the Worm-God of Arrakis.
On the flipside, the formation of the Bene Gesserit and the Suk Medical School and the Sardaukar Imperial levies was something that was glossed over. The Sisterhood is created out of the remnants of the Sorceresses of Rossak, who are themselves a concept that seemed contrived to me. They have psychic powers of sorts, and are obsessed with breeding apparently, but they share very little with the later Sisterhood. The transformation from one to the other was handled rather unsatisfactorily for me. The Suk school itself isn’t mentioned, and neither is its special conditioning, but we do meet Dr Rajid Suk and his descendant Mohandas Suk, who are fairly typical medical personnel, with little to distinguish them or to suggest why the greatest medical institution in the galaxy is named after them. The Sardaukar, the crack troops of the Padishah Emperor in the Dune Chronicles are never even mentioned or even hinted at that I could see. The topic of Salusa Secundus becoming a hell-hole of sorts does come up, but not why the planet gives rise to one of the most elite soldiery in the galaxy.
There is a lot more that I could talk about the novels, but that would be entirely too self-indulgent, which is why I touched on these few topics instead, topics which I thought merited more attention than any of the others I could have talked about. I am also told that my 3000-word plus reviews are somewhat of a slog for some readers, which is another reason why this review is so short in comparison!
Anyways, back to the trilogy, some closing thoughts.
If you are expecting the same magic as Dune, then frankly this trilogy is not where you should be looking. Just re-read the master’s original work instead. Or the rest of the Dune Chronicles series penned by him. Legends of Dune is just not on the same level. That said, these are fairly decent books in their own right, and are the start of yet more books, one of which is the already released Sisterhood of Dune which is set in the aftermath of this trilogy. There are several other planned volumes as well and those should be quite enlightening. I really want to see Ixians and Tlulaxa and Sardaukar and Mentats take the centrestage!
As a fan of Dune-verse, I do recommend the novels. I wouldn’t have finished these 650-950 page behemoths if I didn’t like them, as some of my readers might well know given my ramblings on my blog. Interestingly, I think I just might get around to reading the huge Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire novels after all, or the works by Peter F. Hamilton which are all reportedly more than a 1000 pages. Now that’s a hefty book, good god.
If you do decide to pick up these books, do drop me a line and share your thoughts!
The Butlerian Jihad: 7.5/10
The Machine Crusade: 8.5/10
The Battle of Corrin: 8/10