Blog

Fantasy Classics: “Pawn of Prophecy” (by David Eddings)

Sometimes, you just want to read a book that hits all the right notes of its chosen genre, that doesn’t really try to be something it’s not. So, when I decided that I wanted to read an epic fantasy in a style that isn’t quite as popular that it once was, I dug out my omnibus copies of The Belgariad and The Mallorean and decided to give them a re-read.

I’m glad I did. From the moment that I started reading Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment of The Belgariad, still retains much of the charm that drew me to it when I was an adolescent in the late ’90s, always looking for my next fantasy adventure to lose myself in.

The novel follows a young boy named Garion, who’s been raised on a farm in the practical kingdom of Sendar. Very soon, it becomes clear that he is part of something much vaster than he originally thought, and that his “Aunt Pol” is in fact the powerful sorceress Polgara, while the vagabond that he’s known since he was a child is Belgarath, Polgara’s father and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. They soon set out on a quest to recover the Orb of Aldur from a man who has stolen it, picking up several companions along the way.

It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be an epic adventure story in much the same mold as those that preceded it (most notably, perhaps, both The Lord of the Rings and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks). The book doesn’t take many risks when it comes to plot, and the reader is well aware from the first page where all of this will end up, particularly since the book begins with a young boy struggling to find his place in the world. The characters that appear are the archetypes that one expects from epic fantasy: the orphan hero, the wise old man, the rascal, the warrior, etc. And the plot is somewhat episodic, as they make their way through the lands of this world, foiling several plots along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. Though Eddings’ plot might follow the traditional beats of an epic fantasy, there are some moments of unique beauty here. The bond between Polgara and Garion, in particular, is one of the most affecting parts of the entire novel. The idea of the orphan as the epic hero is one that seems baked into the genre, but Eddings’ skill as an author allows us to see the negative impact that this status has on Garion’s sense of self, particularly after he comes to realize that Aunt Pol isn’t really his direct aunt (though, as it turns out, she is his many-times-great-aunt, just as Belgarath is his many-times-great-grandfather). Given that she has been one of the most constant aspects of his life, it’s very disconcerting for him to find that she isn’t who he thought she was. The moments when Polgara embraces him and Garion responds to her kindness are incredibly heartwarming, and they are a reminder that the family is as important to the genre of the epic as the more adventurous aspects.

Eddings’ skill as a storyteller is that he manages to keep his book light and breezy, even as he explores some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the epic form. There is a lot of violence in Eddings’ world. Even when the characters are joking with one another, it’s clear that theirs is a very unstable world, one in which politics can lead to bloodshed in the blink of an eye. There are some elements of grimdark here, to be sure, but Eddings prefers to keep things from getting out of hand.

Now, it has to be said that Eddings’ work is problematic in at least two regards. First, there is the question of gender. Unsurprisingly, most of the main characters are male, with the important exception of Polgara. However, while some have said that her inclination to perform domestic tasks takes away from her power, I’ve always thought that she was one of the best characters in the book. Though she might look like someone who’s content to simply do her work in the kitchen, she makes it pretty consistently clear that she’s as formidable as her father Belgarath, and that her choice to work in the kitchen is just that, a choice. (It’s also worth noting that, several years after this book was published, she would get her own volume exclusively about her life and told from her perspective).

The more glaring problem is Eddings’ tendency to associate “west” with “good” and east with “bad.” Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this tendency, since it crops up literally everywhere, including in The Lord of the Rings itself. More importantly, he has a tendency to associate the races of his fictional world with certain (seemingly immutable) characteristics. Thus, those peoples that inhabit the west and north tend to be associated with goodness and justice (even if they are sometimes a little dense) and those from the east and south with sinister purposes, guile, and often just plain evil. Again, this isn’t exclusive to Eddings, but it’s one of those aspects of epic fantasy that has definitely come under significant (and well-deserved) scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and it’s one of the things that really dates this particular effort.

That being said, there is quite a lot to enjoy in Pawn of Prophecy. While the genre of epic fantasy seems to have moved on from some of its most basic conventions, for better and worse, there’s still something to be gleaned from these earlier examples of the form. I’m already making my way through the second volume of the series (like I said, it’s a quick read), and I’m still amazed at how powerful this story remains.

I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the books of this series, as well as Eddings’ other work, with all of you!

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!

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: God Emperor of Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Now at last we come to one of the most divisive entries in the Dune Chronicles. It’s not hard to see why. After all, this is a novel that has as one of its main characters a man who managed to make himself a hybrid of human and sandworm. To be honest, when I long ago read the cover of this novel, I thought it sounded ridiculous, a far cry from how things had started out in Dune. Now that I’ve finally finished the first three volumes, the fourth does make more sense than I thought it would.

To be fair, the novel is weird, particularly in comparison to the other entries in the series. By this point, 3500 years have passed since Leto first began his transition into a human/sandworm hybrid. He now rules as the supreme authority in all of the universe, known as the God Emperor. Utterly convinced that his is the only path by which humanity can avoid catastrophe, he represses dissent in his domain. However, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his own downfall, which will come about at the hands of Siona and another ghola version of Duncan Idaho. At the same time, Leto has also begun to find himself falling in a strange sort of love with the Ixian Hwee Noree.

Despite the novel’s absolute strangeness, I found myself absolutely captivated by it. In part that’s because the character of Leto himself is so bizarre and yet so utterly compelling. This is a creature that has given up almost all semblance of his humanity in order to bring about what he sees as the salvation of humanity, and there is in his story (as there was in his father’s) a profound tragedy. This is particularly acute for the reader that remembers Leto as the child that he was in the previous novel (though of course he was never really a child, since he has had full consciousness from birth). The fact that Leto feels himself so drawn to Hwee, even though he also knows that he stands at the brink of his own death, heightens the sense of tragedy.

It’s sometimes been said of this book that it indulges too much in Leto’s own delusions about his godlike status. However, to me that rather misses the point. The novel makes no bones about the fact that this creature is, indeed, a tyrant, and it betrays a certain ambivalence as to whether his actions–which he claims were taken in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself–are really just a cover for his own desire to rule over everything in his power. To a large extent, it seems that the final determination on that particular question must lie with the reader though, for my part, I think that Leto’s strenuous command of the entire narrative–almost every chapter has an excerpt from one of his journals–definitely skews it in his favor.

Though Leto occupies a substantial portion of the narrative, the other major players are Duncan Idaho and the rebel Siona. I’ve always found it particularly haunting that Idaho, who served the Atreides so faithfully, should be endlessly replicated through the centuries. Of course, Idaho gholas have played a significant role in each of the previous two novels, but this one is different, somehow. As the last being other than Leto himself that has a memory of what things were like before, he is something of a conscience figure, for both us as readers and for Leto himself. More than any of the other iterations of the character, he is a reminder of the old system of morality and order that existed before the rise of the God Emperor and the decline of the old Imperium. It’s small wonder, then, that it is he who joins with Siona in order to bring about the end of his rule.

Whereas Duncan is the past, Siona is the future. The product of numerous generations of Leto’s select breeding of the Atreides breeding, she has been chosen by Leto bring about his end. Like so many other members of her family, she finds herself caught up in forces that she cannot control, responsible for moving history forward. In bringing about the end of Leto’s reign, she sets in motion something that will radically reshape Dune (yet again), whatever her own wishes might be in the matter. Though parts of the novel are from her perspective, she still remains something of an enigma, though it’s always nice to see a woman do something in a science fiction novel rather than just serving as window dressing.

As much as I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune, however, I also found myself wanting to understand more about the events that transpired in the three and a half millennia since the last installment of the series. In particular, I found myself wanting to know the eventual fates of the many characters that we met in the last installment, people like the Lady Jessica (always one of my personal faves), as well as the tragic Princess Irulan, and of course Leto’s own sister Ghanima. Of course, I know that sometimes less is more when it comes to these sorts of stories, but I’m also the sort of person who wants to know each and every detail about characters, particularly ones that I’ve spent so much time with. What’s more, I wanted to know more about how the Fremen have become the degraded beings they are by the time of the events of this novel, reduced to merely aping the practices of their ancestors.

For all of that, this novel is a bold and risky one. It’s the rare author who would attempt a time jump of such magnitude between book and the next, and it’s a testament to Herbert’s skill as a storyteller that we as readers are brought so immediately into this world that he has created. I’ve already begun reading Heretics of Dune, which takes place a millennium and a half after the fall of Leto. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!

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

Having finished Dune Messiah, I decided to move right into Children of Dune, the third novel of Frank Herbert’s magisterial Dune Chronicles. While it still has the feel of the previous two novels, events have begun to move quite quickly, and the characters, particularly the titular children, have to move swiftly in order to keep up.

This novel has a bit of something for everyone. For those who enjoyed the political aspect of the original novel, there is a lot of palace intrigue, as various factions both within the court and outside of it scheme for power. For those who loved the Fremen and the sandworms, there’s some of that, too. And, of course, there is also a lot of philosophizing, particularly as young Leto II has to contend with the burdens placed on him by his father’s mission.

There are there tragedies that punctuate this story. The first is that of Alia, the sister of Paul and one of the key members of his regime. Since before birth she has had the ability to sense the various voices of her predecessors (and this is why she is known as an Abomination to the Bene Gesserit). Unfortunately, she proves unable to withstand the voices inside of her head and one in particular, the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (her own grandfather who died at her hand in the original novel) gradually takes possession of her, twisting her psyche until she becomes a tyrant as bad as any that occurred previously in the series. In the end, she chooses to end her life rather than continue doing the bidding of the corrupt voice in her head. It’s rather heartbreaking to see this character that we have been with almost since the beginning perish in such a way, but it’s a reminder of the terrible price that power takes in this world.

The second tragedy is Leto II. Tortured, like his father, with prescience, he has seen the future that lies in store for humanity and knows that he must make the choice that his father refused. While it’s unclear what, exactly that entails for most of the book, near the end we realize that it entails becoming one with the very sandworms that are such a key part of the Arrakis ecosystem. I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Children to God Emperor, and now I know. I have to say that it felt a little bizarre to see a character become a human-sandworm hybrid, but within the context of the series it makes sense. Leto, unlike his father, knows that the only way to see humanity follow his path is to become a god, with all of the power, and the immortality, that such deification entails.

The third is, of course, Paul himself, who returns from his exile in the desert in the form of the figure known only as the Preacher. While the novel leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not this mysterious man is indeed Paul until the very end, in a meaningful conversation with Leto it is revealed that he is, indeed, the hero of the previous two novels, come back to condemn the excesses of the regime that he left behind. Ultimately, he returns near the end of the novel to condemn his sister Alia and her tyranny but, alas, he doesn’t even get a death that has all of the grand drama that one might desire, since he is slain on the steps of the temple by outraged priests. It’s an ignominious ending for a man who managed to remake the entire universe in his own image, and that is no doubt the point. In the universe that Herbert imagines, there is no satisfactory conclusion for those who ascend to the highest ranks of power, only death and disillusionment.

It’s easy to see why this novel marks the point at which many people quit the series. While the palace intrigue and religious ruminating are definitely part of the overall ethos of the Dune books, you can’t escape the fact that the novel ends with Leto becoming a hybrid of human and sandworm, one that is seemingly destined to rule over the universe for millennia. For some people, that’s enough to turn them off. For others, this novel is a conclusion to the Paul narrative arc and thus don’t feel the need to proceed. In my opinion, though, they’re shortchanging themselves (I’ve already started God Emperor and I love it).

For my part, I personally found this novel to be one of the most exciting (and challenging) in the series, precisely because of the fact that it breaks new ground. It has to be said, however, that Leto’s transformation, and all of its consequences, renders the political machinations of several of the characters ultimately moot. After all, a significant part of the novel deals with the efforts of the disgraced House Corrino to regain the throne that they feel is rightfully theirs. Irulan’s daughter Wensicia is, at first, the instigator of this plot, her son ultimately banishes her and is, finally, granted the position of recorder for Leto.

There are, however, a myriad of unanswered questions. What happened to Jessica? Or Ghanima, for that matter? What about Irulan, the Corrino princess who became a sort of surrogate mother figure for the two children? These were some of the more fascinating characters in the series, and I found myself feeling a little let down that they didn’t get a fitting ending (especially since God Emperor takes place three and a half millennia after the events of Children).

Like its predecessors, Children of Dune asks some important philosophical questions, forcing us to confront the nature of tyranny, history, faith, and government. Is it acceptable, or desirable, for a figure to take control of the universe if that means that it will avert the destruction of humankind? What is the best kind of government? Can faith unite people or is it doomed to divide?

It’s the engagement with these questions that makes the Dune books such an enduring pleasure to read.

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

It’s quite common in the Dune fandom to take potshots at the expanded Duniverse, particularly the series of prequel and midquel novels published by Frank Herbert’s son Brian and his collaborator Kevin J. Anderson. In fact, the fandom has even coined a term to refer to that part of the canon: “McDune.” It’s actually a clever bit of derision, a means by which fans can register their disapproval of the perceived downgrading of Frank Herbert’s original novels.

Allow me to disagree.

Though there are times when Herbert and Anderson’s books are a bit pulpier than their predecessors, I personally find them more accessible. What’s more, they do still address some of the weightier philosophical issues that were such a key part of the original novels’ appeal. That is certainly the case with this novel.

Paul of Dune is set between the events of Dune and Dune Messiah, as well as before the events of Dune. The two alternating timelines shed light into both the events in his adolescence that shaped who Paul became in later years as well as the struggles have faces as his Jihad fans out across the universe, costing billions of lives. In the past, his father Leto is drawn into a War of Assassins, while in the present Paul has to contend with the consequences of his Jihad as it fans out across the universe. What’s more, plots and schemes abound, as both the deposed Shaddam and the noted assassin Hasimir Fenring put their own plans into motion to reclaim the throne.

The novel moves at a brisk pace. In keeping with the format of many of the Dune novels, the chapters are usually short and punchy, moving between different characters in order to provide us with a panoramic view of the many players at work. Some classic favorites from the original novel make appearances, including the villainous Vladimir Harkonnen. By far the most interesting parts of the novel, however, focus on Hasimir Fenring, who has always been one of the more enigmatic yet fascinating characters in the canon. Here, he plots with his wife Margot to steal the throne, either for their daughter Marie (who is herself a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program) or for some other puppet that they can manipulate for their own purposes.

We also get a glimpse at the sinister and mysterious world of the Bene Tleilax, who have been undertaking their own effort to create a Kwisatz Haderach. Their creation, Thallo, is one of many such, and he’s one of the novel’s more haunting creations. Seemingly a perfect human specimen, he befriends Marie before going mad and attempting to destroy his master. Like so many other of the other times that the reader encounters the elusive Bene Tleilax, they are strange and unsettling, as well as deeply misogynist.

One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the entire Dune series has always been about the nature of humanity and, relatedly, whether it is morally justifiable to slaughter billions in order to ensure that trillions more don’t perish in the future. Here, that takes on an added edge, as we see Paul, newly ascended to his throne, struggle to hold to his vision. He’s an epic hero, certainly, but despite the fact that he can see into all possible futures, it is up to him, and no one else, to prepare humanity for the tribulations to come. His own particular burden is that he must do so while also contending with the inevitable assassinations and attempts to dethrone him. Paul Atreides was and remains one of the most fascinating and complex figures in all of science fiction.

A lot of reviews I’ve seen of the book blasted it both for its perceived retconning and for its use of Irulan as a means of justifying any future retconning. Fans of the novel will remember that Irulan, daughter of the deposed Shaddam IV and wife of Paul, set herself the task of becoming his official historian, crafting his image for generations to come. In this novel, we learn that she has already started bending the truth, that what we have been led to believe about Paul in earlier iterations of the series may not be true, but instead deliberately manufactured truths designed to further his ambitions and to make it easier for him to be seen as a god.

While this certainly does make any future creative decisions that Herbert and Anderson easier (in that it allows them to not be absolutely beholden to the established canon), I would argue that something more important is going on. Dune has always been about the deep philosophical issues, and what can be more important than the nature of history? Irulan recognizes, and in doing so forces us to recognize, that the way we look at the past is conditioned by our present circumstances more than any objective view.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Paul of Dune. It was not only pleasant to revisit some of the best characters of this universe, but also to see how events between the first two installments of the original series affected the events that followed.

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

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately fails, it is enough to both physically blind Paul and send him wandering into the desert and his presumed death.

Given that this is Dune we’re talking about, there is a great deal of discussion about Paul’s powers of prescience. By this point, they have become more a prison than anything else, a millstone around his neck that he can’t shake off. It is, however, the one thing that allows him to prevent even greater violence and, just as importantly, to protect the lives of those that he loves (to an extent, at least). Indeed, I would argue that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it not only explores the philosophical underpinnings of prescience and its consequences but also shows how those consequences manifest in Paul’s life and his physical well-being. Paul, ultimately, is a sort of negative tragic hero, denied the fulfilling life that some might think that he deserves.

For it is also true that the novel also raises potent questions about the relationship between faith and politics. In many ways, the world that emerges in the aftermath of the Paul’s jihad is very similar to that faced by all political and military movements that emerge from religious fervor that centers on a powerful, charismatic individual. Paul has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while the theocracy he leads is built around him, and even his prescience isn’t entirely enough to prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking root. In Messiah, as in its predecessor, Paul is simultaneously omnipotent and completely impotent, caught in an impossible position that he alone has made possible.

One of the most surprising things about this novel is how much it manages to pack into its relatively short length. In it, we not only see the birth and growth of the conspiracy that will ultimately cost him his eyes, but also the conflicted nature of his sister Alia, the conflicted loyalties of Irulan and, perhaps most importantly, the ghola Duncan Idaho, who has been resurrected by the powers of the Tleilaxu. His presence is a troubling and unsettling reminder of the powers that this reclusive group wields, in this case the ability to resurrect dead flesh. What is particularly striking here is that even though Duncan is at first distinctly not the same as he was when he was alive before, Paul is able to force his former persona to resurface. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel, positing the radical idea that there just might be memories, and fundamental aspects of who we are as individuals, buried deep within our cells. It’s a fascinating and troubling idea.

It is also a remarkably pessimistic novel. When, at the end, Paul walks into the sands of Arrakis, leaving behind his two newborn children, his sister, and his lieutenant Stilgar behind to rule his empire, it’s a breathtakingly devastating moment. This is the man, after all, that we as readers have followed since the very beginning of his journey to the top of the universe. It’s tragic, in the truest sense of that term, that he is unable to attain the rewards that he clearly deserves.

If I have one minor complaint about the novel, it’s that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, one of the shrewdest women in the Imperium and a key part of Paul’s own rise, is killed off-screen on Alia’s orders. While it makes sense that Alia would engage in an act of retribution for the death of her brother, it seems to me that a character like Mohiam would have, at the very least, deserved a more meaningful death.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed my re-read of Dune Messiah. While it doesn’t quite attain the epic grandeur of its predecessor, it is nevertheless a worthy successor and a compelling prelude to the many things to come.

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.

Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one go.

As she did with her earlier book, here Gratton has reimagined the plays that Shakespeare wrote about Henry IV and Henry V (primarily Henry IV Parts One and Two, as well as Henry V). In the novel, Prince Hal is the daughter of Celedrix, a rebel who has taken the throne of Aremoria for herself. Hal’s best friend and lover is the warrior Lady Hotspur, while her opposite number of Banna Mora, the one-time heir to the throne who ultimately conspires with the folk of the nearby island of Innis Lear, particularly Prince Rowan, to both seize the crown for herself and reunite the sundered realms both politically and magically.

Like Shakespeare’s play, the book is primarily about the fraught relationship between Hal and Hotspur, though though here the gender dynamics are flipped and there is no question that their relationship is intensely physical, indeed sexual. Their love for one another is one of the guiding lights of the story, and I truly enjoyed seeing same-sex love celebrated and for these two women to be given a happy ending.

Indeed, one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that not only did it focus on women to an extraordinary degree–still a very rare thing in epic fantasy–it repeatedly emphasized that it is the relationships among and between women that are the most important in this world. Again and again, we are shown how the bonds between women are the glue that hold the various realms together. In addition to her complicated relationship with Hotspur, Hal also has a vexed relationship with her mother Celeda and with the knight Ianta (the novel’s equivalent of Falstaff), while Hotspur has to contend with her own divided nature and her torn loyalties. And, for her part, Banna Mora has to decide whether she wants revenge or justice in her pursuit of the throne of Aremoria.

History hangs heavy on this tale, as the events and characters from The Queens of Innis Lear loom in the background, a reminder of the sacrifices and terrors that have taken place in this world. Some characters that occupied that narrative come back to literally haunt those living in the present, though the novel leaves their identities something of an enigma throughout most of the narrative. However, there’s a unique pleasure to be had in trying to figure out exactly what influence the past is having (some reviewers clearly found this to be a frustrating aspect of the book, but I quite liked it).

The third major strand in the novel is the power of prophecy to determine the actions of those in the present. Do any of us have actual agency, or are our actions always predetermined by the faults in our stars? The novel seems to come down somewhere in the middle. While there are paths that we are fated to tread, and while some of those can have world-shattering consequences, we are also presented with numerous times when the characters forge their own path, when they do what they wish rather than what they are fated to do.

Now, it is true that Lady Hotspur, like The Queens of Innis Lear, can be a difficult read at times. However, I don’t think that this is primarily due to the fact that they reimagine Shakespeare for a modern audience, and there are times when the fit is an odd one. The novel also makes Hal’s shift from reprobate prince to warrior prince a bit abruptly, but that’s also one of the aspects of the original plays. It is also true that there is something slightly strange about Gratton’s prose, a slight stilted-ness that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is also true that she has astonishing powers of description, and the novel is a deeply sensual one.

If I have one major complaint to make about this book, it’s that it didn’t include a map. It’s not just that I love looking at maps–both real and fantastical–but because it’s very difficult to orient yourself in space while reading a book without a map to give you guidance. For the life of me, I still don’t have a firm idea of where the various countries in this book are located, and while this might be acceptable in a regular piece of fiction, for a fantasy novel that is relying on a totally made-up geography it is incredibly disorienting and frustrating.

All told, however, I really enjoyed Lady Hotspur. It is a testament to Gratton’s abilities as an author that she manages to make Shakespeare new and fascinating for a new generation. The fact that her own mother passed away during the course of her writing the book gives Hal’s confronting of her own mother’s impending mortality an extra emotional charge. While Lady Hotspur might be everyone’s cup of tea, I definitely recommend it to those who want an epic fantasy that focuses on women and that gives us characters that we can cheer for, weep with, and celebrate. This book provides all of that and more.

Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the return of Eli Vanto, who has been spending the past several years serving in the military of the Chiss Ascendancy. As a result of these several points of view, we get to see the various threads of power that stretch throughout the Empire and beyond.

Likewise, the novel nicely ties together the various threads that have been in play since the series began. It’s been unclear from the beginning of this series whether Thrawn has truly thrown in his lot with the Empire or whether he still serves the Chiss Ascendancy, and by the end of the novel it’s fairly clear that he still strives to strike a balance between these two parts of his identity. For him, serving the Empire is not incompatible with his loyalty to the Empire (and to the Emperor in particular), and in fact it may be that a threat to one is a threat to the other.

I actually missed seeing Eli Vanto in the second book of this series, and it was rather nice to see him back again. Like Thrawn, he finds himself at something of a crossroads, not quite part of the Chiss and yet also cast out of the safe haven of the Empire. I also enjoyed the introduction of two new characters, Commodore Faro and Ronan. The former is a very compelling character, in part because it’s always nice to see a strong woman in a Star Wars novel. Ronan, on the other side, is one of those foolish types who seems determined to let his own arrogance get in the way of doing what is right. Fortunately, he ends up getting what he deserves in the end, which is definitely one of the more satisfying parts of the novel.

Those who like their Star Wars novels to have a lot of action and fighting will appreciate Thrawn: Treason, and there are several well-written battles that occur throughout. There are fewer discussions of politics–which was a little disappointing–but the novel does continue to show us Thrawn’s tactical brilliance, including his ability to understand an enemy through their art.

Despite the fact that the also leaving enough ambiguity to suggest directions in which the series might go in future installments. Thrawn’s final conversation with the Emperor, in which Palpatine reminds him of the dangers of divided loyalties, is one of the highlights of the book. It reminds us of the fact that there are always more currents running beneath the surface than we are aware of. We, like Thrawn, are not always able to see the many ways in which the politics of the Empire are taking shape.

I very much enjoyed this book and the trilogy of which it is a part. Zahn has an eye for how to put a narrative together, how to keep us riveted to a story from beginning to end. Though I’m not sure that I understand Thrawn any more than I did when I began this series, it is precisely the sense of him as an enigma that keeps us coming back for more. A follow-up series to this one has already been announced, and while this one will, apparently, flesh out Thrawn’s back story among the Chiss, I for one am looking forward to learning more about this absolutely compelling character.