If I were a cynical man, I might be inclined to dismiss the regular stream of Dune sequels, prequels, and inbetweeners as a naked commercial grab on the part of a son seeking to revive his writing career by riding the coattails of his father's literary legacy. It might even be true to an extent. But it would be the kind of cold cutdown that prompts many people to think critics are just bitter jerks. In truth, it's clear from reading a book like Paul of Dune that Brian Herbert's filial devotion to his father's memory and work is as strong as Paul Atreides' bond to his late father, Duke Leto. Happily, Brian isn't turning into a murderous despot or anything. So it's good the writing thing is working out.
This is actually the first of the BH/KJA Dune collaborations I've sat down to read, as I've tried to decide upon a sensible way to work through the entire series. With the announcement of Paul of Dune as a new "direct sequel" to the classic original, I decided to weave it into my progress through paterfamilias Frank's six originals. But I wanted to read Dune Messiah first, because for 39 years, that was the direct sequel to Dune, and I wanted to see how well the new novel filled any narrative lacunae and respected the series' overall architecture.
With the crushing disappointment of Dune Messiah — its utter lack of emotional involvement and sense of detachment from the spectacle of the original — it looked like Paul of Dune had its work cut out for it. So I can report quite happily that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have risen to the occasion. Paul of Dune is, quite honestly, the sequel Dune always should have had. I can't call it great literature. But it is splendid entertainment, and a book that respects the original's integrity. Not only does it answer numerous questions raised by Dune Messiah, but it does the job any sequel should, in that it opens up some concepts introduced in Dune and allows their possibilities to flower. Many characters become fleshed out in ways that even Dune didn't allow. While Paul's mother, Lady Jessica, spends most of this novel offstage, we're treated to greater emphasis on such supporting heroes as Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, not to mention Princess Irulan and Paul's sister Alia. And while the only villains given much attention in Dune were the Harkonnens, here, such characters as Count and Lady Fenring, and even the deposed Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV — who didn't even show his face in Dune until the climax — become more three-dimensional. Shaddam even gets one of this book's best scenes.
With a flashback structure that weaves events in the immediate years following Dune with some backstory detailing Paul's life at age 12, Paul of Dune can often feel episodic and a little drawn out. Compared to Frank, BH/KJA produce writing that's straightforward to the point of being styleless. Yet at their best, they create some terrific setpieces, and their handling of plot intricacies is blessed with clarity. In Dune Messiah, character motivations were murky, sometimes completely obfuscated. Paul of Dune essentially sets out to tell a ripping space opera. Frank's purists may disdain BH/KJA's fondness for brief, taut chapters following different viewpoint characters, but I'm not one to condemn accessibility for its own sake.
We're given a much stronger sense here than in Messiah of the sheer scale and devastating enormity of the interplanetary jihad launched by Muad'Dib's Fremen armies, in the wake of Paul's ascension to the throne. In Messiah, we do get a notion — in the distant aftermath of events — that the galaxy was not exactly a land of milk and honey under Emperor Muad'Dib. But here we see the monumental destruction and feel its consequences first hand. Paul has to come to terms with the fact that he is not, and cannot be, the compassionate ruler his father was. But has he gone too far the other direction, and become the monster his enemies condemn, as the slaughter of billions continues?
Paul of Dune is even more ruthless than Messiah in tearing down the messianic mythology built around its antihero/hero. But this novel takes care to portray Paul not as some gloomy, dour emo boy awash in self-pity, but an emperor who realizes that he has to put personal regrets on the back burner and shoulder the ghastly burdens of what is being done in his name, as much as he might wish things were otherwise.
Paul's prescience tells him that the conflict claiming billions now will eventually save trillions down the line. But the story craftily leaves open the question of just how accurate his prescience may be, and if Paul is simply convincing himself of this, because things have gone too far to be stopped. Even some of Paul's staunchest allies aren't above assassination attempts now. In taking to heart Leto's dictum that "knowing where the trap lies is the first step in avoiding it" — and apparently forgetting that the idea didn't exactly work out well for Leto — Paul becomes overconfident, allowing people whom he knows are obvious threats near him, only to learn that the threat comes from a different source altogether. That prescience isn't infallible.
Among supporting players, Princess Irulan comes into her own here. Dune Messiah seemed to treat Irulan as an asterisk to the story. In this novel, she's not a cold-hearted schemer — indeed, she's the one character in the whole story who isn't afraid to express her emotions when appropriate, as in her horror and disgust at the destruction of her father Shaddam's former capital of Kaitain. But she is a pragmatist, understanding her political role as Paul's wife, and that the unconsummated marriage is the best situation for her given the general state of strife and how low her family has fallen. In becoming Paul's official biographer, she knows she is building up his myth, and that the recording of history — written, as the saying goes, by the victors — is often more about constructing convenient "truths" for the sake of societal stability than simply recording unblemished, objective facts.
We also get a full — and fascinating — subplot detailing what was, in Messiah, a big tease: the odd story of the Tleilaxu and their disastrous attempt at breeding their own Kwisatz Haderach. There's a little pathos here, but not so much that it goes over the line of good taste, and it allows BH/KJA to construct the intriguing new character of Marie, the strangely gifted daughter of Lady Fenring and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. I could say more about her, but she's best left for you to discover yourself.
By now, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written nearly twice as many Dune novels as Frank did, and it's likely they've taken the saga in directions Frank never planned. While it would be too much to hope that all that they have written is equally worthwhile (and I know many fans of the originals view these latter-day efforts with white hot loathing), at least with Paul of Dune, I can say that they've done the series proud with the kind of rousing read only good old-school space opera delivers.