Book Review: “Dune: House Atreides” (by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson)

I’m about to make a very controversial statement. I actually like the series of books that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written, building on the legacy left by Frank Herbert. Anyone who’s spent any time in the world of the Dune fandom knows that those who loved the original books are, for the most part, quite hostile to the efforts of the younger Brian. I’ve seen them described as potboilers, as exploitative cash grabs, as bastardizations of the elder Herbert’s grand philosophical vision that he set out in his original six volumes.

However, all of this is somewhat beside the point. Herbert and Anderson, like another scion of a great literary figure (Christopher Tolkien) have done a great deal to flesh out the world left behind by Frank Herbert. You can love it or hate it, but I personally like returning to this world, seeing the backstories of some of the most fascinating characters in science fiction literature.

The result in this instance is Dune: House Atreides, the first in a trilogy of novels that chronicles events several decades prior to the original novel. At the time in which the novel begins, Shaddam is not yet Padishah Emperor, though he schemes with his loyal friend Fenring to achieve the throne, as well as to support the Tleilaxu in their efforts to create a synthetic melange. Leto is at this point a young man, not yet Duke (though he later becomes so after his father is killed in a bullfight, with the connivance of his mother), while his wife Jessica is only born toward the end of the narrative.

The characters that appear in this novel are some of the most iconic in the entire Dune universe. It’s quite exciting to see Leto in his youth, as he struggles to live up to the expectations set by his father, the Old Duke Paulus. Leto is an eminently likable character, and it’s easy to feel for him as he finds himself caught up in the great happenings of his era, particularly after the Tleilaxu manage to conquer the planet of Ix, sending the ruling Vernius family into exile. He’s both sympathetic and deeply honourable, and even at this early stage we can still see the roots of the man that he will become in Dune. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to tell the great powers of the Imperium how corrupt they are, even if that means that he is rendered vulnerable to the malevolent scheming of his enemies.

Of course, no story set in the Dune universe would be complete without the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. As truly awful as he was in the original novels, he’s even worse here, as he schemes against House Atreides and, in one of the novel’s more horrific scenes, actually rapes the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (unaware that he will father the Lady Jessica). Of course, the cause of the millennia-long enmity between Harkonnen and Atreides is still left largely unexplained, it certainly provides the Baron with a great deal of his motivation for his continuing schemes to bring about the fall of the Atreides (including, it’s strongly hinted, working directly with the Lady Helena, Leto’s mother).

And, of course, there are the Bene Gesserit, the sisterhood that works to bring about the culmination of their breeding program within a few generations of the time in which this story is set. It was actually rather fascinating to see Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Reverend Mother that will play such a large role, particularly since she is such an enigma in both Dune and Dune Messiah. As it turns out, she is the one responsible for the Baron’s later obesity, since she infects him with a disease after he rapes her. Though this is a bit of retconning (for which the authors have taken no small amount of flack), it works well, especially since it’s also revealed that she is the mother of the woman who will later become Lady Jessica, mother of Paul Atreides.

Narratively, the novel is densely packed with action, but it doesn’t feel that way while you’re reading it. Instead, it’s a very quick read, in part because the chapters are for the most part very short. Nevertheless, there is a lovely complexity at work here, with each action taken by the characters radiating outward into the broader universe. One can see how the events of this novel will have a direct impact on the events that take place in Dune, particularly since Leto and Shaddam are shown as having a deeply confrontational relationship even at this early stage.

By the end of the novel, Leto is at least somewhat stable in his position as the new Duke, Baron Harkonnen, having been thwarted in his efforts to sow chaos and bloodshed in the Imperium, yearns for revenge. Shaddam sits on the throne now that his father is dead, though he has banished Fenring to Arrakis and it remains unclear whether the scheme to produce a synthetic version of the spice will actually come to fruition. Each of these characters is painted with such depth and subtlety that it’s easy to find yourself caring about what happens to them, even if they are morally reprehensible (which is the case with both the Baron and Shaddam). Herbert and Anderson deserve a lot of credit for crafting both an exciting narrative and compelling characters.

All in all, I quite liked this novel. While it may lack some of the philosophical sophistication of the original books, that’s okay with me. Instead, what it offers is an exploration of the roots of the characters that we already know and love. And, as a science fiction political thriller, it’s actually quite a good effort. The true brilliance of the novel, however, is the fact that it still manages to be suspenseful, even though the reader knows how most of the actions will resolve themselves and which characters will end up surviving until at least the events of Dune.

I’m hard at work reading Dune: House Harkonnen, so stay tuned!