As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been slowly making my way through the various books of the Dune saga. I’ve now finished the fifth book in the original series, Heretics of Dune. This is one of the entries in the saga that has a rather mixed reception among fans, and I can see why. It’s not quite as focused as some of the other entries in the series and, given that it’s the first not to include one of the original Atreides (or at least a close descendant), it takes some getting used to.
That being said, I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune more than a lot of people, but I still thought it was a rather strange book, particularly in comparison to the ones that preceded it. I mean, it’s difficult to really get into a book in which a man has allowed himself to become a strange hybrid of human and sandworm, even if he does happen to be the most powerful man in the known universe. Heretics is, in my opinion, is much more accessible by comparison. At the time that the novel begins, 1500 years have passed since Leto II was assassinated (at his own orchestration). Though in the subsequent years many humans dispersed in a phenomenon as the Scattering, they have now started to return, led by their sexually fanatical Honored Matres.
The novel largely follows three clusters of characters. One is the newest ghola of Duncan Idaho, who is being trained by the Bene Gesserit, including Lucilla, and protected by the Bashar Teg. Another group is comprised of a young woman named Sheeana, who is blessed with the ability to command the sandworms, as well as the Reverend Mother Odrade and the Tleilaxu Master Waff. The third is Mother Superior Taraza, who encounters and guides many of the other characters.
As the novel progresses, we see the ways in which the old Imperium has been shattered and rearranged in a new power-sharing arrangement, with the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, the Spacing Guild, and the Ixians sharing power. The issue is further complicated by the return of those who were dispersed, particularly the Honored Matres, who are very like the Bene Gesserit but have mastered the ability to sexually dominate men. For this reason, the Bene Gesserit (and the Tleilaxu) refer to them as “whores,” and it’s precisely this very problematic gender politics that makes parts of the novel frustrating to read. The Dune Chronicles have always had a rather vexed relationship with women, and that reaches new depths in this book.
That being said, it was actually rather refreshing to get an inside look at the Bene Gesserit in a way unmatched by any of the other books in the series. At this point, they are sole inheritors of the Golden Path of Leto II, though this gradually reveals itself to be more of a burden than a blessing. However, that’s precisely the point that the novel is making, as it explores the consequences of Leto’s actions. However, it’s only when the novel is concluded that we finally see structure in its entirety.
To my mind, one of the most enjoyable, if strange, aspects of the novel was its exploration of the inner workings of the elusive and secretive society known as the Tleilaxu or Bene Tleilax. Now, we learn that they believe their adherence to the faith to be the only true one in the universe. More sinisterly, we also learn the truth about their celebrated axlotl tanks, which are (as perceptive readers will have already guessed) women who have been turned into giant biological factories. It’s one of the series’ most horrifying revelations.
As one would expect, the characters are rich and developed, and many of them have competing loyalties. Duncan Idaho is, of course, the centerpiece of the novel, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this man who has already been resurrected so many times. Now, he appears to bear the memories of all of the other gholas that have existed, in addition to his memories from the very first Dune novel. Personally, however, I most enjoyed those chapters from the perspective of Teg and Taraza, the Bashar and the Mother Superior. Both of them seem like they could have been characters from the original novel, and they are refreshingly normal after the weirdness of the characters in God Emperor.
If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that so much of what transpired between God Emperor and Heretics is left in the background, and there isn’t an info dump that would catch readers up to speed. Time jumps are always a difficult writing feat to pull off well, and while Herbert did many things well, that wasn’t one of them. The novel itself is easy to follow and read, and the plot is relatively simple, but that lack of crucial background leaves the reader struggling to figure out exactly what has happened. In my opinion, this is one of those times when I wish that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson had continued their plan to write some interquels that would flesh out the events between the original series of novels.
Nevertheless, Heretics is a fascinating exploration of the power of physical desire to change the course of human events on a truly cosmic scale. For, ultimately, it is the conflict between the Bene Gesserit, with their ruthless logic, and the Matres, with their sexual intensity, that sets the stage for the conflict to come in Chapterhouse. We are also a long way from the events that took place back in Dune, and the universe has changed in remarkable ways. However, there are still elements of the old families, particularly the Atreides, swirling about, and the novel suggests that genetic lines can hold true across numerous generations, for both better and worse.
Now that I’ve finished Heretics, it’s on to Chapterhouse. I’ve found myself very caught up in the elaborate and detailed universe that Frank Herbert has created, and so I look forward to seeing both how the next volume shapes up and, just as importantly, how the final two volumes in the series (by Brian and Kevin) finish things off.