In the late 1990s, over a decade after Frank Herbert’s untimely death, his Brian and Kevin J. Anderson decided to pick up the Dune saga where he left off. Well, almost. Instead of writing a direct sequel to Chapterhouse Dune, they decided to start with a prequel to the original Dune. The three books – House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Corrino – form a loose trilogy exploring the major houses of the Dune franchise. Despite the titles, the books aren’t exclusively, or even primarily, about the titular Houses, but rather cover a range of events before the original Dune.
Brian and KJA’s Dune books are quite polarizing. After having read this series, I find much of the criticism valid. It’s clear that the authors did try to flesh out the Dune universe and add depth, but they can’t match the mastery of Frank Herbert’s. There are a few worthwhile character moments, but generally the books never really rise above pulp sci-fi.
The biggest problem is that House books don’t really have story so much as provide backstory to Dune. Whereas Dune had a clear arc and central conflict, the House books just chronicle a series of events that take place over several decades. It seems Brian and KJA took extra care to check off key events like when Leto meets Jessica or Paul’s birth. In one sense, I’m glad the books don’t try to overshadow the story of Dune by trying to tell an even larger, more epic story. Dune clearly represents the climax of a struggle. However, I do think House Atreides could have done a better job setting up a story with its own conflict. There are several small-scale conflicts, but ultimately it seems our protagonists move from event to event to serve the needs of the plot.
This lack of focus becomes even more problematic in House Corrino. This book is supposed to be the climax to the trilogy, yet instead of focusing on a central conflict it becomes unwieldy. By the middle of the book, you have dozens of characters starting conflicts, having babies, and running around scheming. Moreover, if you’ve read Dune, you know that none of this matters. Of course, this is an inherent risk with any prequel, but that’s all the more reason to focus on exploring the rich characters than on overly elaborate plotting.
That said, if you take the book as general backstory to Dune, it actually works somewhat (aside from a handful of contradictions). Baron Harkonnen is back as his scheming self. I actually like what the authors have done with his character. Duke Paulus, Leto’s father, also works as an inspiration for Duke Leto and helps elucidate the Atreides bravura. The sections I most enjoyed though were those about Count Fenring and Shaddam. We only saw brief glimpses of those characters in Dune but I was always curious about their relationship, especially because Dune hints that Fenring’s friendship with Shaddam led to his refusal to kill Paul.
The most controversial aspect of this series is that it seems to contradict Dune because we find out that Paul was born on Kaitin, not on Caladan (Dune makes clear Paul had never left his home world). This isn’t framed as part of a clever twist or subversion of the Paul Muad’Dib myth so much as part of an elaborate scheme by the Harkonnens – that we know will fail – to abduct the baby Paul.
In terms of the writing, where Frank Herbert was a mastery of subtlety and rich prose, Brian and KJA are overt and workmanlike. I’m not sure if this is because the trilogy had two authors, but books repeat themselves constantly, as if worrying readers will forget. This is particularly frustrating when they trues to use foreshadowing. Foreshadowing works when it provides subtle hints and sets a mood. However, the authors advertise future events far too clearly, undermining any sense of suspense. As if an exaggerated form of Chekov’s Gun, if the text repeats that a particular thing is dangerous or important, readers can rest assured that it will play a role in later chapters.
Overall, if you read this trilogy, set your expectations appropriately low. It’s not great literature, and it’s certainly not at the same level of Frank Herbert’s novels. Don’t expect any great philosophical insights or character arcs. The House trilogy especially feels like a triumph of breadth over depth – exactly the opposite of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. However, if you’re willing to look past the lackluster writing, the books do provide a few insights into the characters.
My journey through Dune continues next week with Paul of Dune…