Children of Dune continues Dune Messiah‘s deconstruction of the hero. Alia becomes regent of the empire as Paul’s children, Ghanima and Leto II, struggle with their father’s legacy. As Alia struggles to maintain control over the empire, we see her lose her grip on reality. Like Paul, she’s both despot and victim. Meanwhile, a mysterious Preacher starts to criticize the empire and the state-sponsored religion.
Unlike Dune or even Dune Messiah, in Children of Dune the Atreides do not face a significant external threat or plot. Instead, the empire is torn from within. Children of Dune focuses on internal court intrigue, plots within plots. Decades before George R.R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones, Children of Dune had some of the best political intrigue in genre fiction. As in Martin’s work, this is a story of ever-shifting alliances, complex political strategies, and moral ambiguity. If Dune was a classic epic along the lines of the Iliad, Children of Dune is more like the Oresteia, a family tragedy.
The Preacher’s crusade against Paul’s legacy raises fascinating questions about how to destroy political idea rooted in religion. How much control charismatic leaders have over the people they inspire? Can religion and politics mix without violence? Is power a privilege or a burden?
Frank Herbert’s writing style has always been dense. His writing worked in Dune because lend the story an epic weight, but it doesn’t work quite as well for the intimate character moments in Children of Dune. He seems to delight in taking the reader on random philosophical musings. Although these often connect to the themes of the story, the characters sometimes sound as if they’re speaking in aphorisms. Then again, Leto II does come across as the type of person who would never miss an opportunity to lecture somebody.
Ultimately, Children of Dune brings Paul Muad’Dib’s story to a satisfying conclusion. After Dune, Herbert could easily have continued the series by writing a series of action novels, depicting Paul’s campaigns during the jihad as part of a grand adventure. Instead, the sequels depict Paul as an antihero. I respect Herbert’s boldness in breaking with so many storytelling conventions. Even 40 years later, I can only think of a handful of stories that have dared to let their protagonists sink to such depths (the The Godfather comes to mind). As I noted in my review of Dune Messiah, pop culture in the 2010s seems increasingly interested in deconstruction of heroes (see Logan and The Last Jedi). Children of Dune goes a step further because it suggests these types of charismatic heroes are doomed to failure.
My journey through Dune continues next week with the Sci-Fi Channels Children of Dune adaptation, which combines this book and Dune Messiah…