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Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The end of Dune Messiah was a catastrophic overturning as intense as the glorious one of Dune While the original book had Paul Atreides in triumph, defeating the wicked Harkonnens and the corrupt Emperor who supported them, in the sequel his fall from grace was completed by his loss first of his beloved Fremen concubine Chani in childbirth and then of the prophetic vision he had been relying upon since his eyes were destroyed by a stoneburner. Rather than accept Tlielaxu artificial eyes, and thus become beholden to that mysterious people when they clearly wished to gain control over his policies as Emperor, Paul chose to follow the Fremen custom regarding the blind and allow himself to be thrust into the deep desert to die.

Nine years have passed since that moment, in which the twins Leto and Ghanima have been raised by their aunt Alia, who has functioned as Regent for Leto. Like Alia, the twins are "pre-born," having access to their ancestral memories while still in the womb and thus having to struggle to create a sense of self and identity amidst the continual presence of demanding ancestral voices. Even Stilgar, the tough old Fremen Naib who was bound by ties of blood to the twins' mother, is tormented with doubts about them, to the point that in the very first scene of this novel he is seriously contemplating killing them.

And the strange nature of the twins is not the only thing driving him to unease. In the twenty years since Paul's triumph on the plain outside Arakeen, the ecological transformation of Arrakis has progressed many times faster than Kynes' most hopeful dreams. And that rapidity of change and growth has produced dangerous stresses on the social fabric of Fremen culture, creating a sense that the bedrock of values upon which they once stood has dissolved into shifting sands.

But the crystalizing event that marks the beginning of the book is the return of Lady Jessica to Arrakis. She went back to Caladan after the triumphal end of Dune, and took no part in Dune Messiah. But her return at last marks the reassembling of the surviving members of the Atreides party of the original novel.

And in many ways this novel reads like an attempt to get back to the elements that made the original novel such a success. Unfortunately, in several places it seems as if the surface elements are being replicated without success, because they lack the underlying logic that made them work. We even have a return to the menace of an old family enemy, after the court intrigues and betrayals that characterized Dune Messiah. Since the Harkonnens were extirpated root and branch at the conclusion of Dune, that leaves only the Corrinos, the deposed Imperial Family, in the person of Wensica, third daughter of the now-deceased Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.

In the original Dune the planet Salusa Secundus was a place known only by its dreadful reputation. Duke Leto and his advisors talked about it in hushed tones, agreeing that almost nothing was known about it save that conditions were incredibly harsh and this somehow contributed to the incredible military prowess of the Sardaukar, the Emperor's elite forces. When the Fremen cried out "We were slaves on Salusa Secundus for nine generations" during the evening ritual of remembrance, nothing more needed be said to evoke the sense of loathing for a horror now left behind, alongside determination that it never happen again, that one day revenge would be exacted upon the system that had inflicted it upon them. Thus Paul's sentencing the deposed Shaddam IV to his own prison planet at the end evoked those unspoken horrors, and Paul's promise to make it a "garden world, full of gentle things" simultaneously invoked his mercy in victory and his power to effect just such a transformation.

In this volume we finally get to see the actuality of Salusa Secundus. Given how much twenty years of ecological transformation have ameleorated the harshness of Arrakis, we can assume that what glimpses we see are of the former prison planet somewhat gentled and transformed. But the character of Wensica partakes of much of both her father and of the Harkonnens in both her subterfuge and her instrumental attitude toward human life. We never discover exactly where she obtained the children used in training the Laza tigers to attack the twins, but it's seriously unlikely that they were volunteers or that they were informed that they would face almost certain death. Most likely they were simply acquired from parents who had no choice in surrendering them, and were used up at will to attain Wensica's goal of putting her son Farad'n on the throne her father lost.

And then the assassination attempt actually strikes, sending young Leto fleeing alone into the desert to find the mysterious Jacurutu (shades of Paul and Jessica fleeing the Harkonnens by flying into the desert), and beyond it the even more mysterious Shuloch. And as things become even more heated in Arakeen, with growing evidence that Alia is Possessed by a malign ancestral memory (which just happens to be none less than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, effectively bringing him back onto the chessboard), Stilgar ends up taking Ghanima and fleeing into the deep desert, much as the Fremen fled to the southern polar regions during the worst of the Harkonnens' attacks on their people in the original.

Yet somehow none of these elements really recapture the power of the original Dune. Worse, there's a sense that Frank Herbert feels an obligation to top himself, to come up with new ideas that are even more mind-blowing than the original. Yet somehow the discussion of Kralizec, the typhoon struggle against some apocalyptic enemy of the far future that Leto hopes to avert, never really has the immediacy of the threat of jihad if the Fremen are loosed upon the universe that loomed over the original, that Paul tried to avert but in the end could not.

The end is on the whole satisfying, yet it never reaches quite the emotional high that we hit with the end of the original. However, even it is better than the endless extruded book-product that is currently being churned out by the Dune franchise now in the care of his son Brian.

Review posted February 18, 2009.

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