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Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Paul of Dune is the first of a new Dune series with the overtitle of Heroes of Dune. They are intended to tell the stories lying in the gaps between the original Dune books and between Dune and the first prequel series. Considering the results of Messrs. Herbert fils and Anderson's earlier efforts to expand the Dune canon, I approached this volume with no small trepidation.

Unfortunately, they exceeded my worst expectations. One would think that after writing eight books in a particular universe, one's skills and sense of that world would improve. Perhaps that had raised my expectations the least little bit, because I swear that this volume is even worse. Maybe even worse than all their previous efforts put together.

Many years ago American humorist Mark Twain wrote a scathing criticism of James Fennimore Cooper, whose stories of the early American frontier, the Leatherstocking Tales, were immensely popular at the time. In it he listed a number of rules of fiction that had been violated persistently by those stories. As I was reading Paul of Dune, I kept thinking back to that list, and considered just how it stacked up:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

Other than "filling in the gaps" between Dune and Dune Messiah, I'm not sure what this novel was supposed to accomplish, and when I got done reading it, I felt, "well, that's nice."

When I originally read Dune Messiah, I was a little disappointed that Frank Herbert did not pick up immediately after Paul's victory at the end of Dune, but instead jumped more than a decade ahead. Now, having read this volume, I can see why he jumped ahead -- the events of that period would have added nothing to the real point of the Dune series for him. Namely, a meditation on the perils of abandoning oneself to a Leader.

Now I'm quite confident that the elder Mr. Herbert may well have had a good idea of what happened in those intervening years, because it's the business of an author to know more about his or her world than ever gets onto the page. But he also had a clear idea of his purpose in writing the Dune series, and quite honestly, I think his son has lost sight of it. Perhaps teaming up with a writer of Star Wars tie-ins was a mistake, because I have seen many novels in successful media franchises that seemed to have been written solely to satisfy the demand of readers for more of their favorite fictional world.

2. That the episodes in a tale be necessary to it

Here again, I'm at a loss -- and particularly when it comes to trying to figure out what they were trying to accomplish by switching back and forth between events taking place during the Fremen Jihad and events taking place when Paul was a boy -- and that contradict several scenes in the original Dune which made it clear that Paul had never been in a heighliner before, never traveled in space before, and in general was quite excited at the prospect of leaving his native world for the first time ever. And while I had wondered what had ever happened to the daughter of Feyd-Rautha that Margot Fenring had been pregnant with at the end of Dune, since all of them vanished quite thoroughly from the later books, that storyline seems to be nothing more than an attempt to tie in every rumor of Tlielaxu activity that ever was dropped in the original books, including ones that strongly suggested that the activities had occurred generations earlier.

For that matter, is the book as a whole even necessary to the meta-story of the Dune series? I'm put in mind of a Harry Potter parody which was entitled Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel, effectively making fun of the endless series that is often perceived to be continued solely because the author needs to milk the cash cow some more.

3. That the personages in the tale be alive, except for corpses, and the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

Where do I even begin? Yet again, the authors seem to have no real sense of the characters from the original works, and the characters of their own invention are so thin that calling them cardboard would be a courtly compliment.

4. That the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

Again, a total failure. In my own personal opinion, one of the great strengths of the original series was the creation of a sense of depth by the mention of worlds that would only be glimpsed from afar, suggesting whole Great Houses with their noble chiefs and various support staff, but never actually allowing us to see them, save as "far trees." By actually bringing large numbers of noble personages on-screen, the prequel and interquel volumes actually destroy that sense of depth, often because the characters are so shallow.

5. That when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk,

Frank Herbert had a natural talent for dialog, and particularly for dialog in the high style. Would that Brian Herbert had inherited it.

6. That when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description

Quite honestly, I can't really get any sense of the difference in speech between a noble Earl and a Fremen warrior -- something that was very noticable both in vocabulary and style in the original.

7. That when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.

Although rather non-PC to modern ears, what Twain is saying is that the author should maintain a consistent tone and register throughout a character's conversation, rather than wobbling back and forth between the high style and a colloquial manner of speech. Now it is true that a character may have cause in various situations to avail him or herself of different registers of language, in a given situation he or she should remain consistent unless there is a very good reason to depart from them (say, being startled at a critical point and thus reverting to a childhood dialect).

8. That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader

Folks, this entire novel is one gigantic crass stupidity played upon the reader. Apparently the authors think that being granted the legal right to produce and publish fiction within the Dune universe entitles them to write whatever ideas come into their heads and expect us the readers to accept it as authentic additions to the same universe as the original Dune. Or worse, that they can toss out whatever is in the original Dune which happens to be inconvenient to their plans and expect us to accept that.

Or as Marion Zimmer Bradley was fond of saying, suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead.

9. That the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone

Given that this is a novel of science fiction, it is expected that there will be things to tickle our sense of wonder. But given that this is supposed to be an addition to an established universe, the authors should stay within the boundaries of the possible that had been established in the earlier volumes. Instead, they seem to feel themselves free to toss out continuity whenever it is convenient for what they want to write.

10. That the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones

Yet again, a total flunk. By the time i was done with this novel, I felt nothing but exasperation with the entire crew. Or as Marion Zimmer Bradley was wont to say, I could care less if a convenient earthquake swallowed them all up.

11. That the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency

The characters of the original Dune were indeed characterized to that level -- which means that we the readers come to this novel with certain expectations of them, expectations which are most definitely not met. And as to the characters original to this volume, I can only say that they are so foggy that I couldn't tell you what to expect of any of them.

In sum, I am quite astonished that such a badly written piece of prose was not only purchased by the publishers without extensive revisions, but also given extensive promotion, including being touted as a "SciFi essential book," particularly when so many excellent writers are finding it difficult or impossible to get another book looked at by the publishing houses. In politics there's a term "coattails," as in "he rode in on so-and-so's coattails" to describe a candidate whose own qualifications were weak but who gained a victory by association with a much stronger candidate on the same party's ticket. And quite honestly, I think that is the case here -- people who loved the original books are buying the new ones solely because they want to go back and have more adventures in a world they loved, whether or not the new books are as good as the originals -- or any good at all, for that matter.

So quite likely the only way to get this endless stream of tripe to stop is to quit buying them. Go back and buy a new copy of the original and re-read it. But just say no to badly written books and maybe the publisher will finally insist that the Clueless Duo rewrite things to bring them up to some kind of a standard.

Review posted February 1, 2009

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