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: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness and violence, each side convinced that right is on their side.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the books in this series is the way in which they manage to combine all of the elements of fantasy in ways that feel fresh and exciting. I particularly love that the series is drawn from west African mythology and that it pays so much attention to the fact that these characters are definitely not white. Fantasy as a genre has been dominated for so long by whiteness that I’m always looking for a series that breaks out of that mold. It’s clear from the first page to the last that Adeyemi has given a great deal of thought to how to build this world from the ground up, and it’s impossible not to find yourself utterly swept up into it.

The novel keeps moving along at a breathtaking pace, and you’re left never entirely sure when the next twist will happen. There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is appropriate, given that it is in many ways about the destructive power of war and the corrosive impacts it has on even those who begin with the noblest of intentions. None of the three primary characters are angels, and there are moments when it’s possible to dislike any of them. However, Adeyemi does an excellent job of making us appreciate and love each of these characters, even as we also recognize their flaws. All of them, each in their own way, is trying to do what they think is best, and while they don’t always succeed, we’re led to at least appreciate their efforts.

Each of the three main characters finds themselves tested in ways that they never before imagined. Zélie must slowly come to terms with the fact that, whether she likes it or not, she is now a leader of the people who now wield magic. Amari must recognize that, in many ways, she has become far too much like the father that she spent so much of the previous novel loathing and trying to escape. Inan, the boy who has been thrust into a kingship that he never really wanted and is not really prepared for, must contend with the competing forces around him, from his mother’s relentless desire to eradicate magic to his own love for Zélie and desire to bring about peace.

And it’s important to remember just how young these characters are. These young people have been thrown into the midst of a war that none of them asked for, each of them caught up in the web of deceit and death and destruction that was precipitated by their parents and those who don’t have their own interests at heart. You can hardly blame them if, at times, they aren’t able to exactly meet the challenges that they face and if they make choices that are foolish and sometimes dangerous.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and at the moment it’s unclear what, exactly has happened and what will happen to these characters that we’ve already come to love and care about. The worst part about finishing a book like Children of Virtue and Vengeance is that we now have to wait for an even longer period of time before the third volume is out! And, given how many twists and turns the first two volumes in this series have taken, I think it’s safe to say that we are about to see these beloved characters go through quite a lot before this whole thing is over. Heartache is no doubt on the horizon, but hopefully so is salvation.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Kiss” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Note: Some spoilers follow.

I have to admit to a bit of trepidation going into the third of Jacqueline Carey’s series set in her fictionalized Renaissance. I knew that my beloved characters from the earlier series, Phèdre and Imriel, were now mere historical figures and that the story centered on the young woman Moiron, one of the Maghuin Dhonn of Alba. I earnestly wondered whether I’d find myself drawn into this story to the same degree that I had with its predecessors.

I should have known better, and I should have trusted Jacqueline Carey. I loved this book from the first page to the last, and I’m already diving deep into the sequel.

Moirin is a young woman who stands astride two very different worlds. On the one side is her ancestral people of the Maghuin Dhonn, the very same bear-worshipers who played such a large role in Imriel’s story. On the other is her father, a D’Angeline priest of Naamah. Though she yearns to stay in Alba next to her beloved mother, she finds herself drawn inexorably across the, first to Terre D’Ange, where she becomes enamored of both a sorcerer and the queen herself, and then to faraway Ch’in, where she encounters a princess possessed by a dragon and a realm poised to be torn apart by war, sorcery, and a dark weapon that could unravel the world itself.

Once again, Carey manages to create a character who is at once both utterly believe and completely sympathetic. Unlike Imriel, who from the beginning was tortured because of what he endured as a child, Moirin has the advantage of having been raised in almost total innocence in the forests of Alba. There is thus a certain earnestness and sweetness to her character that makes you cheer for her, even as you sometimes wince at the situations in which she quickly becomes ensnared. For, as both a distant relation of the King of Terre D’Ange (her ancestress was Alais, the sister of Queen Sidonie) and as a woman who possesses great magical power, she is easily ensnared in the schemes and plans of those in power.

While the novel is told completely in first person from Moirin’s POV, it is also populated by a host of fascinating characters, ranging from the sorcerer Raphael (son of the Lady of Marsilikos) and Queen Jehanne to the Ch’in princess Snow Tiger and the warrior turned sorcerer’s apprentice Bao. All of them bring something unique to the novel, and Moirin, with her sensitive soul and natural inclination to desire, finds herself giving a piece of her soul to each of them in turn.

I’ll be honest. It was a bit refreshing to find myself reading a novel that centered so thoroughly on female desire. It’s not that I didn’t like Imriel, but his series was most definitely a male-oriented one. Moirin’s tale goes into far greater detail about the desires shared between women than even Phèdre’s story, and Cary brings her usual skill at conveying both the raw physical intensity and the transcendental spirituality that both make up the human sexual experience. I’ve said it before: Carey is one of the best authors around in terms of her ability to craft poetic prose.

Naamah’s Kiss is perfectly paced. This is the type of novel that’s a bit of a slow burn at first, as it introduces us to the world, its people, and its primary character. As always, we find ourselves navigating the same world that Moirin is, trying to determine who has exactly what motives. In the process, we learn a great deal about this world and its continued development. Make no mistake, things have changed quite a lot in the century since Imriel began his tempestuous relationship with his cousin Sidonie. Terre D’Ange has turned inward, even as some of its people yearn to explore the new world across the ocean. And in Ch’in, especially, new technologies are being born that might reshape this world or destroy it, particularly the development of gunpowder into fearsome weapons of war that are known (accurately enough) as the Divine Thunder. It remains to be seen whether and how the advances of modernity might affect this world that Carey has so thoroughly envisioned and whether, and to what degree, the people of the Maghuin Dhonn, as well as all of those who have an affinity with the elemental forces of the world.

Naamah’s Kiss also continues Carey’s trend of more thoroughly exploring the use (and abuse) of magic in her fictional world. Moirin, unlike her predecessors, does indeed possess a powerful magic that is a legacy of her people, and as the novel progresses she finds it both a blessing and a burden. It’s key to who she is as a person, and yet it is also a destiny that she must fulfill if she is to maintain any sense of herself as a daughter of the Maghuin Dhonn. Just as importantly, she also recognizes that sexual desire is a key part of that destiny and that, through it, she can heal wounds and encourage people to become better versions of themselves.

As with all of Carey’s works set in this work, Naamah’s Kiss is about many things: duty, destiny, family, desire, death, and war. What’s more, the story manages to be both intensely personal and also epic in scope, with a final moment with the dragon that is as moving and beautiful as one could ask for in an epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to weave all of these various strands together into a coherent whole that leaves you, like someone who has visited the Night Court in the City of Elua, you find yourself both sated and wanting more. No matter how many times you enter the world of Terre D’Ange, it always manages to surprise you.

I’m already very much immersed in the next volume in Moirin’s journey, Naamah’s Curse, and I very much look forward to sharing my thoughts on it with all of you. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “A Time of Blood” (by John Gwynne)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

It is a time of great darkness and unrest in the Banished Lands.

Bleda, the young warrior of the Sirak, struggles with his feelings for the half-Ben-Elim-half-human Riv, even as she contends with the consequences of her revealed heritage. The warrior Drem escapes from the horrors of the north, only to find that the battle has just begun. And, on the other side of the battle, the sorceress and priestess Fritha attempts to gain her vengeance against Drem and against those that betrayed her and cost her the life of her child.

As with its predecessor, the action here is non-stop. The novel picks up right where its predecessor leaves off, and we follow the characters as they all perform their parts in the forthcoming clash between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim. We witness their trials and their victories, watch men and women killed brutally in battle and, by the end of the novel, we feel as if we have endured all of this with the characters. Part of t his has to do with Gwynne’s impeccable eye for good pacing, but just as much stems from the fact that he manages to imbue each of his characters with their own individual traits and perspectives that make them worthy of our respect.

If anything, this installment in the series is even bleaker than its predecessor, with our heroes caught in terrible situations by the end, with hope nowhere in sight. More than that, though, the novel does at times stray into the horrific, particularly when we see the many experiments that Fritha conducts on those who have fallen into her clutches. Though the novel doesn’t go into too much detail about the actual process by which she creates new hybrid creatures from the dismembered parts of old ones, the results of such things are frightening enough.

Despite her barbaric experiments, A Time of Blood allows us inside Fritha’s head for large parts of the story. Through the novel, we learn a lot about her backstory, and it is finally explained why it is that she bears the Ben-Elim such a powerful grudge and why she remains so determined to see them destroyed. Given how we have already seen how unbending Ben-Elim justice can be, and how willing they are to sacrifice the lives of those humans who are supposedly under their protection, one can see why she would be so willing to turn her considerable military and magical talents against them. That being said, she still commits some truly heinous acts throughout the story, and though we may come closer to understanding her and her motives, but it is also true that we continue to regard her with horror and fascinated revulsion.

Given how ably A Time of Blood delves into the psychology and motivations of one of its main antagonists, I was also particularly struck by the ways in which the novel explores the themes of identity and loyalty. All of the characters, good and bad alike, contend with the demands placed upon them by their particular social situations. All of them bear the scars of their pasts, and each and every one–even, perhaps especially Fritha–has seen the sorts of loss that would have broken a lesser being.

And, of course, their identities tie in with their loyalties, and Riv in particular feels the bite of this as she has to decide whether her identity as a halfbreed means that she should identify more with the Ben-Elim or with her human counterparts. And given the fact that the Ben-Elim are either notoriously unbending and puritanical (as is the case with Lord Protector Israfil) or cunning and disloyal (as is the case with Kol), it’s easy to understand why she would feel so conflicted.

For there is thus no question that both the Kadoshim and the Ben-Elim are deeply flawed, the former because of their lust to destroy everything in their path, the latter because of their puritanical belief that theirs is the only way to gain an understanding of the workings of Elyon, the one who created all. Nothing illustrates this more than the way in which the two groups treat their half-human progeny. While the Ben-Elim almost unanimously regard such hybrids as an abomination, the Kadoshim regard them with something akin to love, even if they also see them as yet another piece in their eventual game to destroy their enemies. In the end, it’s hard to say which side has the right of it, and that is part of the novel’s sinister genius.

Having now finished two books in Of Blood and Bone, I’m struck again by the gritty darkness that is a hallmark of this world. Gwynne doesn’t shy away from the brutality and intensity of battle. There are numerous descriptions of violence (so this may not be suitable for you if that isn’t your thing), but they don’t feel gratuitous. Instead, they feel like the hallmarks of a grim world that always teeters on the brink of destruction. One has to be hard to live in these lands. As a result, A Time of Blood, like its predecessors, feels very akin to the epics of the ancient north.

A Time of Blood does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of second book syndrome. The plot-lines established in the first novel have moved forward in ways that make sense, and the state has been set for the climactic battle that will, it can be hoped, decide the fate of the Banished Lands. Given how many of the characters that I loved from The Faithful and the Fallen met their deaths in the last book, I’m not terribly hopeful that many of the characters from this one will survive this climactic battle but, as the old saying goes, hope springs eternal.

There’s only one drawback to loving a book so much that you finish it in two days: you have to wait several months for the concluding volume to be released!