These thoughts are SPOILER FREE until the warning.
After recently completing my annual re-reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune series and compiling my list of memorable quotes, I was not quite ready to leave that universe behind. I wanted more following the cliffhanger ending to Chapterhouse: Dune, and to get it I picked up two books titled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. These books are part of what I like to call the “Expanded Dune-iverse” that was written by Brian Herbert, Frank’s son, and Kevin J. Anderson. The novels that comprise the expanded Dune-iverse were all based on notes that Frank Herbert left behind. I was fortunate enough to hear the two authors discuss how this all came together a few years back, and it was truly a labor of love.
Their dedication to the source material really does pay off and gives their novels a greater sense of purpose and continuity than exists in some other expanded universes (cough Star Wars cough) even if these books don’t quite live up to the original series. I have read all of these novels before, but only once; however, as I mentioned, I wanted more time in the world so I chose to reread Hunters and Sandworms for the first time in years. While the story they tell is exciting and entertaining enough to make the journey fun, the original novels set my expectations quite high and these books are not quite on the same level for me. Without being nitpicky, there are a few key things that contributed to this feeling.
Perhaps the thing that most influenced my feelings on these books is the pacing. Where the original series had long, dense chapters the newer books move along much more quickly. Short chapters (often just a few pages) progress the action very rapidly and bounce the reader along between multiple characters and locations more frequently than one might like. As a result of this the places and characters don’t feel as developed as in the originals. It almost feels like the authors rushed to cover a lot of ground and only had time to briefly touch upon certain things to check them off a list in getting to the end.
The writing is also not as eloquent as the originals. There were a few elements that came off sounding bad. Stuff like the “Final” Kwisatz Haderach, “ultra” spice, and numerous adjectives consistently attached to the already hyperbolic “struggle at the end of the universe” seemed to overdo things a bit, especially since they are used fairly frequently. The authors also seem to feel the need to remind us of certain plot points ad nauseam. The original series really did a great job creating a distinct atmosphere in each book, in particular one of desperation that over the reader in Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse, but these expanded books more often tell us how the characters are feeling rather than involve the reader with that feeling. Where the original novels really built up these moods, Hunters and Sandworms are not nearly as subtle.
Finally, these books do not really feel like the ending to “Frank Herbert’s Dune” but rather the ending to Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s Dune. There is a lot in these books that would only make sense to a reader that has read the two prequel trilogies released prior to these books, and we’re not just talking minor references; two or three HUGE plot elements are derived entirely from those six books and in some places they prioritize the prequel stories over the original material. That is a lot of backstory just to pick up what is supposedly the next book in line following Chapterhouse. I’m not saying they’re way off base from what the seventh Dune novel would have been (they have access to notes I never will), it’s just that the heavy reliance of the prequel materials makes me more consciously think about what would have been, especially given the stylistic discrepancies. More after the break.
SPOILERS AND CONCLUSIONS FOLLOW THE BREAK.
Perhaps the most explicit instance of this is the revelation that the mysterious antagonists, Marty and Daniel, are none other than Omnius and Erasmus, leaders of the Thinking Machines from the Butlerian Jihad trilogy, and not the Face Dancers they are strongly hinted to be. For the sake of argument, it is possible that machines were the intended enemy all along. The ancient war against machines is name checked in a few of the novels, God Emperor of Dune in particular. There’s other references, too. Duncan mentions how atomic weapons are reserved for use only against the other intelligence in Children of Dune. Leto II is equally concerned with Ixian machines bringing about the end of humanity as he is curious about their potential advancements. And more telling, Idaho again mentions Leto II had a fixation on cyborgs in Chapterhouse. So the idea is there, it just didn’t sit right with me since Omnius and Erasmus don’t easily fit into where the story was at by the end of Chapterhouse. They also probably wouldn’t have existed in the Frank Herbert timeline as the established characters they are presented as here.
My other significant problem with the story was the ending. The miraculous way humanity was saved by another character from the prequels, Norma Cenva, was ultimately unsatisfying and made me wonder why they bothered with certain ideas or characters. My problem specifically is with how easily she swoops in and saves the day with just a few thoughts. Combining this with the Face Dancer kill switch, the ending felt too easy. Adding to that all the characters getting a “they lived happily ever after” sendoff, I just wasn’t exactly satisfied. Ok, maybe I’m the cynical one for not liking that sort of thing, but I don’t think that Dune really lends itself to having that kind of ending.
And now a moment to lament the tragically underused Sheanna. This isn’t a criticism unique to these novels, but since they serve as the ending, here is where I get it out. Since her introduction in Heretics, it felt like she was being built up as a major character. She was only on the periphery in Chapterhouse, but was being built up even more, making her seem like she was going to be Jessica and Odrade rolled into one and even more. Would she put on the Sandtrout armor like Leto II? Become a female Kwisatz Haderach? The possibilities seemed endless but instead she ends up as something of an also ran. Yeah, she’s pivotal in Duncan’s escape at the end of Chapterhouse and founds a rival Sisterhood at the end of Hunters, it’s just that the page time she ends up with doesn’t seem to match how important she was made to seem.
I think at this point it shouldn’t surprise you that the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson novels are pretty controversial in the fan community. Fans of anything can be very passionate people and opinions run the usual range from love to outrage to denial and all points in between. As for myself, I’m on the more sympathetic end of things. This may surprise you, but I would recommend these to any Dune fans that have not checked them out yet. The (major) caveat to this is that the first two prequel trilogies are required reading for anyone wanting to get into these books. Fortunately, out of the expanded novels, these are probably the best written and can be a lot of fun to read if you accept the fact that they are not going to be the originals and (depending on your point of view) have some contradictions from previously established canon. They tell an interesting story and let you get to know a lot of the characters from the first novel in more detail. From there, proceed at your own discretion. I do sadly think the books go downhill later on, to the point that I am pretty sure I am done with any future releases, but it was a good run and I fun along the way.