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Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review

Heretics of Dune
I like how the little village looks almost like a worm

It's been fifteen hundred years since the God Emperor drowned on the planet Arrakis, now known as Rakis. With the help of a new source of spice from the Bene Tleilax and new ships built with Ixian technology, humanity has scattered to the stars, reaching beyond the most distant galaxies on its Golden Path to immortality. However, some of the Lost Ones have returned to conquer the remnants of their history, to retake Rakis and defeat the remaining powers of the Bene Tleilax, the Ix, the Fish Speakers, and the Bene Gesserit, submitting them all to their will. Meanwhile, on Rakis, where the sandworms have retaken the planet and reformed it once more into Dune, a girl arises with the power to control the worms, exciting the religious order that dominates the planet and earning the attention of the universe. The Bene Gesserit put a bold plan in motion that involves this girl and another ghola of Duncan Idaho, but in order for it to succeed, they might have to become more than just the quiet power manipulators behind the scenes.

Heretics of Dune is a perfect counterpoint to its predecessor, The God Emperor of Dune. Whereas the latter was an almost plot-free meditation on political philosophy, the fifth book in Frank Herbert's Dune series chooses to forego most of Herbert's contemplative meanderings and focus more on the adventure. There are more things happening in Heretics of Dune than in perhaps any other Dune novel from Frank Herbert, and for anyone--like myself--who felt exhausted after reading God Emperor, Heretics is a welcome breath of fresh air.

This book changes up more than just its pace and tone, however, as it is the first book in the series without either Paul Atreides or his son as protagonist. Instead, this one has a more nebulous protagonist, the Bene Gesserit itself, under which nearly all of the point of view characters serve. This even-more-distant-future version of the Bene Gesserit is still remarkably similar to the Bene Gesserit of past books, but Herbert fleshes them out far more than he has in the past, including how it changed during the long, tyrannical reign of Leto II and how it must change in order to survive the current crisis.

Heretics of Dune
"Is there something behind me?"

As such, he creates a twisted version of the Bene Gesserit--known as the Honored Matres--that serve as the main antagonists, power brokers of their own determined to undermine the old powers and enslave all of mankind under their cynical sexual control. Herbert also goes into more detail concerning the Tleilaxu, which are introduced as perhaps more cunning and villainous than their previous appearances would suggest, even though they are quickly dismantled by the Bene Gesserit and become more of an annoyance than a genuine threat.

Where Heretics shines is in its evolution of the power dynamic, a recurring theme throughout the series. Everything is an arms race in Dune, where limited prescience provokes the creation of the Kwizatz Haderach, which in turn provokes the creation of both technology and biology that can cloak itself from prescience. In Heretics of Dune, we see the Tleilaxu create more advanced Face Dancers and use their ghola technology to more mind-boggling effect. We also see the Honored Matres expand upon Bene Gesserit powers and the Bene Gesserit, in turn, finding new genetic pathways to counter them.

This last part is largely unclear, however, and the surprise development late in the story concerning the Bene Gesserit-controlled military leader Miles Teg--who develops new superpowers under interrogation--goes completely unexplained and feels a bit contrived, especially since Teg is then single-handedly responsible for resolving all the novel's conflicts. Indeed, the biggest complaint I have with the story involves those last few chapters, which feel terribly rushed and unsatisfying. A major conflict in which Teg finally rescues two of our heroes in the heat of battle and then escapes to Rakis--which has been built up for over half the book and is, in every way that matters, the dramatic climax of all the book's action--actually occurs off-page, with one chapter ending as Teg amasses his army and the next starting with them all arriving safely on Rakis.

Heretics of Dune
This matches my mental image almost perfectly

Also, there's a bit of repetition to the action, with characters getting captured and breaking free a lot more often than you'd expect. There's at least one instance of this that could have been cut out to make room for the missing climax. Given how little action there is in the previous novel, however, having too much in this one is a welcome problem.

Another mild complaint I have is the sex, only because it's not Frank Herbert's strong suit as a writer. There is a lot more sexual content in this book than in all the previous ones combined, and it always comes across as weird, clinical, and gross. It also doesn't say anything particularly good about Herbert that, in his first book with a strong female perspective (most of the characters are women), he decides to use sex as a main theme. I'm not a woman, but I have a hard time believing that their generalized view of sex is even remotely related to the way his female characters experience it in this story. (Granted, it's not as bad as the Fish Speaker from the previous book who had a spontaneous orgasm just from watching Duncan Idaho climb a wall.)

Still, Heretics of Dune is one of the better novels in the series, certainly not as good as the original but about on par with Children of Dune. There's a lot of fascinating world-building, a wealth of great characters (especially Teg and Odrade), and plenty of Herbert's trademark subversive narrative approach. He is wise to move his focus away from Arrakis, the Fremen, the Worm, and Muad'Dib, but this still feels very much like a Dune novel, with everything that entails. It does stand in stark contrast with God Emperor of Dune in terms of overall style, but the two books have more in common than they do in contrast.

-e. magill 1/30/2020

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