Science Fiction Classics: “Heretics of Dune” (by Frank Herbert)

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.

Stay tuned!

Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the desert of the planet Arrakis with his mother, the Lady Jessica. Ultimately, Paul learns to live among the Fremen and ultimately leads a revolt against the Emperor Shaddam, after which he claims the throne for himself.

What I found most fascinating about the novel is the way in which it manages to give us insight into the science that makes the planet of Arrakis work as well as the politics that surround it. In the universe that Herbert has created, the vast edifice of the Empire rests on spice, without which nothing can function. The entire novel is, in some ways, a potent warning about the dangers of an entire society building its fortunes and its most fundamental structures on one resource. Indeed, the various powers come to realize that they have been very foolish indeed to not only rely so much on the spice but also to underestimate the Fremen, who end up being key to Paul’s bid for revenge against his family.

Yet it is just as much a rumination on the power of biology and destiny to shape our lives. By the end of the novel, Paul has come to accept that the jihad that he has attempted to keep from happening will in fact spiral out of control no matter what he does. Like so many other epic heroes that have emerged in literature, Paul is in the unenviable position of being a super powerful figure–his very existence is due to a generations-long genetic experiment by the group of sorceresses known as the Bene Gesserit–that is nevertheless helpless to really change the course of events that surround him. Though the full extent of this powerlessness won’t manifest until Dune Messiah, even in these early days it is clear that Paul will ultimately become the victim of his own success, a figure that has both extraordinary power and yet none at all.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that are equally if not more compelling than Paul, foremost among them his nemesis the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating figure, precisely because so much of him remains unknown (though more is revealed in the prequels published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson). Equally interesting is the figure of the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, who is a testament to the ability to science fiction to feature strong women.

Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how neatly it cleaves into two separate parts. The first part is the well-developed one that shows the complex web of politics and scheming that brings the Atreides to their knees, as well as showing how Paul gradually finds himself drawn into the world of mysticism and foretelling that will shape so much of his future destiny. The second half occurs after a time jump and, to be honest, still feels a little less-developed than the one that preceded it. Even now, it feels as if the climax of the novel is a bit rushed.

Admittedly, there are some things about the novel that don’t age particularly well, chief among them Baron Harkonnen’s penchant for young boys, which falls far too neatly into the pernicious stereotypes that evil people must be sexual perverts. Though one rather expects this sort of lazy storytelling from others, one would think Herbert would be above it.

All in all, though, I loved Dune just as much this time as I have in my previous readings. It’s one of those rich and textured works of literature that is both infinitely accessible and yet continually full of new meanings to be explored.

Tolkien’s Songs: Pleasure or Pain?

In the annals of Tolkien fandom, there is no subject more likely to cause an argument that the subject of the songs. Anyone who’s read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings knows that fans either love them or hate them. Anecdotally, I’d go so far as to say that casual fans tend to simply skim over them in the process of reading the books, while those who are a little more in-depth in their appreciation read them and savor them (though whether they enjoy them, per se, is a rather different question). To some they’re an essential part of world-building, while to others they’re hopelessly self-indulgent and more than a little silly.

In my opinion as someone who has read both of these books more times than I can count, I have to say that I’m still divided. Part of me dearly wants to love the ones that Tolkien clearly took the most pride in–the great romantic tales of Beren and Luthien, the sailing of Eärendil the mariner–but I’ll be honest, they’re kind of a slog to get through. I’m not enough of a poetry critic to gauge whether they’re “good” (I’m also rather dubious about such distinctions in any case). Sometimes, I do read them in their entirety, but at other times I skim through them to get to the parts of the narrative that interest me more.

At the same time, I can appreciate how these serious songs function in the context of the books as a whole. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, they are often symbolic of the power of the Elves, even in the darkening hours of the Third Age, to command some measure of power. For example, when Frodo, Sam, and Pippin encounter Elves in the Shire, it is their song in praise of Elbereth that drives away the Black Rider. It’s clear that for Tolkien song in particular was a powerful form of magic as great as anything that a wizard can create.

I can say, however, that as I continue to re-read Lord of the Rings, I find myself absolutely loving the ones that are more humourous in tone. Both the elaboration of the nursery rhyme “The Man in the Moon” and Sam’s ditty about the Troll never fail to bring a smile to my face. But, more than that, they do reveal some important facts about Tolkien and the way that he viewed his act of creation. In the case of “The Man in the Moon,” we can see him performing the sort of linguistic archaeology that he loved so dearly, giving us an extended version of the very short nursery rhyme that we already know so well.

In the case of Sam’s song about the Troll, it is not only very amusing–almost earthy–but it also reveals something important about Sam. While we might be forgiven for regarding Master Samwise as something of a buffoon, there are hidden layers to his character that really come into the open at moments like this. Through this song, we learn that he is actually a far more competent and intelligent character than we might have been led to believe.

No doubt the arguments about the merits and drawbacks of Tolkien’s songs will continue to rage for as long as people continue returning to Middle-earth. Love them or hate them, however, you have to admit that they remain a key part of the world that Tolkien created, a reminder of just how much he laboured to make a world that had its own internal consistency. If we owe one thing to Peter Jackson’s films (and I would argue that we actually owe quite a lot), he deserves credit for bringing the songs out of the realm of the abstract and into the performative. Let’s face it. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to really hear how a song is supposed to sound when you’re reading it silently. However, I dare you to remain unmoved by Billy Boyd’s singing of the travel song (even if it is delivered out of its original context).

What are your thoughts about the songs in the work of Tolkien? Do you love them, hate them, or some combination of the two? Let me know in the comments!

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Scion” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Having finished the original Kushiel series, I found myself longing to immerse myself again in that fascinating and sensual world. I’d tried once before to read the next three volumes in the series, which focus on Imriel, but for some reason just couldn’t get into them as much. This time around, however, I’ve found myself irresistibly drawn to Imriel’s story.

Imriel de la Courcel is a haunted youth. His mother is the most reviled traitor that Terre D’Ange has ever known, and though he tries to be good, the expectations of his fellow nobles (and their scheming) makes it tremendously difficult, if not impossible. When he travels to the ancient and weary city of Tiberium, he finds himself drawn into the clutches of the delicious and erotic noblewoman Claudia Fulvia, who is herself part of the Guild of the Nameless, a sinister group of manipulators. Ultimately, he has to confront his destiny and his responsibilities as a Prince of the Blood.

Part of the pleasure of the novel stems from the way in which Carey manages to make Imriel a fully-fledged character in his own right. This is not, in other words, a re-tread of Phedre’s story, but an entirely different narrative with different stakes and consequences for what happens. Imriel is haunted by his memories from his time as a prisoner of the Mahrkagir in Daršanga, as well as by the legacy of treason left behind by his mother. A great deal of the novel, then, revolves around his desire to be good, to overcome the darkest parts of his past and try to forge his own destiny.

But he is also haunted by something much deeper than that. Though he would rather it were not so, he is a member of the Shahrizai, and as such he has the power and legacy of Kushiel running through his veins. One of the most compelling (and disturbing) parts of the novel occurs when he grabs Phédre by the wrist and, upon seeing the flash of desire go through her eyes, knows that he must get away or risk destroying the genuine love and affection he has for her. As she always does, Carey ably demonstrates the complex, and sometimes contradictory, impulses that govern our actions and our feelings.

While he hopes to find some measure of peace and understanding Tiberium, the opposite turns out to be true as he is drawn first into the orbit of the noblewoman Claudia Fulvia and then into a war involving a minor city-state and, most startling of all, a ghost who inhabits his friend Lucius. The sequences in the city-state of Lucca are at once gritty and terrifying, a testament to Carey’s unique ability to draw us into a scene, whether it’s in the bedroom or on the battlefield.

As was the case with the first three volumes of this series, Carey has a phenomenal ability to capture the beauty and the terror of sexual desire. Imriel is driven by forces that he can barely understand, and the blood of Kushiel beats in his veins. Try as he might to escape this legacy, he finds that sometimes it is better to accept the flaws in one’s nature and to learn to use one’s scars as an opportunity for growth. Kushiel’s Scion demonstrates the extent to which we are shaped by our past experiences and traumas, even as we must also not let them completely confine and define us.

And, of course, hanging over all of this is the shadow of Melisande, Imriel’s beautiful, deadly mother. By this point, we know that she has come to be revered in some parts of Caerdicca Unitas as nothing less than a goddess, and Melisande, with her insightful eye for the main chance, has done little or nothing to discourage this belief and has instead used it to her advantage. It remains to be seen whether Imriel will have the chance to confront her and demand the justice that has long been denied.

By the end of the novel, there are still many things left unresolved, and it remains to be seen how Imriel will continue dealing with the legacy of his mother’s betrayals and his own obligations as a member of the royal family. I can’t wait to see what awaits him in the next volume of the series.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Chosen” (by Jacqueline Carey)

It’s a very rare thing for an author to follow up a delicious first novel with a sequel that is just as satisfying.

Well, Jacqueline Carey has done it, giving us Kushiel’s Chosen.

The novel picks up right after the end of the previous one, where Phédre attempts to discover the whereabouts of the traitor Melisande Shahrizai, the woman who very nearly brought about the end of the kingdom of Terre D’Ange. In the process, she encounters not only the viper’s nest of Serenissima, but also falls in with a pirate, a priestess, and a terrible confrontation with her own guilt. In the end, Phédre must come close to sacrificing everything she holds dear to save the country she loves.

Melisande continues to be one of the most compelling, exquisite, and yet utterly repelling creations in all of fantasy literature. Her cunning and her utter ruthlessness draw the reader as much as they do Phédre, and while it is very easy to hate her, you can’t help but admire her absolute willingness and ability to do whatever she has to do gain power for herself. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Melisande is amoral; rather, it is that she lives by her own rules. As she says to Phedre, Elua and his Companions care little for politics.

Though the fraught and deadly connection between Phédre and Melisande is one of the novel’s (and the series’) most compelling aspects, that between Joscelin and Phèdre is arguably the more complex and meaningful. They have the grave misfortune of being diametrically opposed in terms of their temperaments: Phèdre, an anguisette who experiences pain as pleasure, he a renounced Cassiline who cannot help but love her but can’t bear the thought of hurting her. Carey keeps the two of them balanced on an exquisite edge of conflict, even while reassuring us that they do, in fact, love one another.

I’ve always had a particular penchant for fantasy that works at the crossroads of historical fantasy and traditional fantasy. It’s a surprisingly rare type, and rarer still to find someone who does it with skill. Carey manages to create a world that lives and breathes with the same vibrancy as our own. These are nations that have their own complex histories and mythologies, their own ways of being in the world. More than just a colorful backdrop, they also determine how the various characters interact, both with one another and with their environments. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Serenissima is definitely the standout in this novel, for Carey manages to find creative ways around the dilemma posed by this world’s lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. Instead, the people of this world’s Venice worship Asherat and Baal Jupiter. What’s so startling about it is how right it feels for the world that she’s created and how seamlessly she twines together a culture that is very much that of Renaissance Venice with a faith that probably seems strange to us. And, as it turns out, that faith has an important role to play in the affairs of kingdoms.

If Kushiel’s Dart was about the power to triumph after tremendous adversity, Kushiel’s Chosen is about the power of the gods to influence our lives, and about the sacrifices that we must sometimes make in order to see to it that the greater good is served. Phèdre may have her flaws–most notably in her inability to do away with Melisande–but she is an honorable woman, one who loves her country and her queen dearly and deeply. However, she also recognizes that her actions (and inactions) have brought about the deaths of many and, however, well-intentioned she might be, she still must contend with the moral burden this places on her soul.

Overall, Kushiel’s Chosen is a finely crafted and exquisite follow-up to Kushiel’s Dart. With its intricate (one might even go so far as to say baroque) plot, erotic and sensuous prose, and vividly detailed world-building, it somehow manages to be a coherent work of erotic epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to make us feel the depths of despair and the joy of triumph, and at the end, you emerge as satisfied as one of Phèdre’s patrons.

Who could ask for more?