Children of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
I've never pictured the sandworms as pastel blue
With their father gone, the prescient twins, Ghanima and Leto II, heirs to the empire, are beset on all sides by those who would use them to take control of the universe. From their home on the desert planet of Arrakis, they must contend with an aunt who has lost control of her own soul, a grandmother whose allegiances lie with the Bene Gesserit order she had once forsaken, the heir to the fallen House Corrino who seeks to reclaim the throne, a blind preacher who roams the streets of Arakeen spouting heresy, and many others whose designs are subtle, intricate, and devious. Risking their own sanity, the twins search through the lives of their parents and ancestors in search of a mythical "golden path" that they can chart in order to shuffle off their enemies and ensure the human race's survival for millenia to come.
This is Children of Dune, a novel that is far superior as a follow-up to the original Dune than the more lackluster Dune Messiah. Children of Dune is a more carefully plotted story that doesn't get lost in its own exposition, a book that carefully balances world-building, character development, action, and revelation in a much more satisfying way. While not quite as excellent as the original Dune--none of the sequels are--this feels like a true sequel. It takes the same basic formula of a young heir struggling to overcome impossible odds to take control of an unweildy planet and empire by transcending his mundane human existence--the main antagonist is even a reborn Baron Harkonnen, sort of--but it changes enough to justify its existence as a separate story, even charting a wildly different path in its final chapters.
It is still, at its heart, a meditation on power, on the many pitfalls and uncertainties that come from it. Herbert, an obvious student of history, creates a character in Leto II that even Paul Muad'Dib could never have been, one who can see the pattern of all the empires of the past and who has the courage to forsake his own humanity in order to break it. Power, in the universe of Dune, always has a proportional cost. In order to become Emperor, Paul has to let go of healthy human relationships, and in order to maintain his power, he has to unleash jihad. At the end of Dune Messiah, he has to sacrifice his love and finally his own life in order to secure the future for his children. Here, in Children of Dune, Leto II (and Herbert) is looking for a way out of this cold universal truth.
The classy cover
But Herbert doesn't shirk on further developing the universe he's created. Some additions that serve as central plot points feel a little contrived--the best example of this is the idea of abomination, of a precient's mind being possessed by the spirit of a precursor--but most of the new lore feels like a natural extension of what has already been established. He also finally begins to address a problem that was hinted at all the way back in the original Dune: changing Arrakis into a paradise, which Liet-Kynes set in motion, will eventually destroy not only everything that makes the planet special, but will have repercussions for the entire universe around it.
Herbert shows the societal changes that can occur within a single lifetime by showing the erosion of the Fremen culture and the swift bastardization of religious ideals that can be used to justify pretty much anything. It is finally clear in Children of Dune that the central protagonist of the entire series is not any one character like Paul Muad'Dib; it is Arrakis itself.
That's not to say Herbert forsakes his human creations. With a series of books that retain multiple characters, many lesser writers pigeonhole those characters to fit certain roles. There are good guys and bad guys, and though a handful might switch sides once in a while, it is fairly typical for characters to become predictable and rote. This is not the case with Herbert. Everybody in the Dune universe is a shade of grey, with motives that are nevertheless consistent with their internal workings. They may go in directions that are unexpected and might even perplex the reader, but they always have an underlying reason for it that feels genuine and compelling.
The twins are too old, but this is probably my favorite cover
Perhaps my favorite character in this novel is the mentat, literally born-again version of Duncan Idaho, who is caught in a whirlwind of several competing character traits that are challenged by exterior events. His love for Alia is challenged by her steady transformation into an avatar for Baron Harkonnen; his loyalty to House Atreides is challenged by the fact that none of the Atreides seem to be on the same page; and his emotional intuition is constantly at odds with his mentat abilities. He is forced to play many roles, to conceal his motives and intentions, and for a character who was initially written as the reliably wears-his-heart-on-his-sleeve mentor to Paul, it is fascinating to watch how he reacts to the situations he finds himself in here.
All that said, the book is not perfect. While not nearly as obtuse as Dune Messiah, it does occasionally get a little too full of itself, with a few chapters that could have been compressed if not edited out altogether. Even upon multiple readings, there are parts that are all but impossible to truly follow, especially the dialogue which occasionally gets too clever by half. Fans who have stuck around this long, however, can overlook these flaws with ease, as Children of Dune is about as close to the original Dune as any of the sequels get. Its ending necessitates a pretty big change for the series moving forward, and the next three books--which we'll get to in the weeks to come, rest assured--should be thought of as a different phase of the sprawling epic that is Dune.
Next week, I'll look at the Sci-Fi Channel's TV adaptation of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Not a lot of people seem to agree with my assessment of its predecessor series, so when I watch it in the next few days, I will try my hardest to give it the benefit of the doubt, to look at it in the best possible light and not get too distracted by its poor production values. I make no promises, though.
-e. magill 1/9/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: