Dune #5: Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

Read: 30 June, 2016

After the god emperor Leto II fell to his death, there was a cataclysm, a starvation times, that forced much of humanity out into the furthest reaches of space. Now, a thousand years later, these “Lost Ones” are returning, and it upsets the balance of power that has reigned in the galaxy for thousands of years.

I loved Dune and I liked Messiah and Children well enough, but God Emperor came very close to making me give up on the series. It was so terrible, with so many juvenile ideas about power, women, and psychology – all passed off as the wise words of a four thousand year old being – that I just couldn’t fathom subjecting myself to that again.

But I’d already bought the last two books, so what could I do?

Other reviewers have written that God Emperor is the low point in the series, and I have to agree. Heretics was no Dune, but it was, at least, readable.

But the theories are still there. I’ve become much more of a feminist since reading Dune, so I don’t know if the weird gender stuff is more pronounced in this book, or if I’m just noticing it more. But there is something incredibly unsettling about Herbert creating this group of women who have power and agency, but then centring their power around weaponized sexuality. They forbid love, and use sex to breed desirable genetic traits and assert control.

In the end, the special mystery power that Duncan Idaho has been given by the Tleilaxu (a mystery through most of the book) is that he can control people through sex in the way that women normally do! And suddenly he becomes a teenage sex god in one of the most disgustingly casual statutory rape scenes I’ve every read. So while the Honored Matre is trying to control him through sex, the tables are turned and she is shocked to find that she is actually enjoying the sex “like a man.” It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Beverly Herbert…

I liked the idea of the story being set so far into the future, a point mostly brought out through the change in place names. This also gave Duncan Idaho a function in the narrative, as he points out the changes his home planet has undergone since he was alive.

The action was fine, but Herbert’s writing style is rather dry. In the original trilogy, it worked anyway because the characters worked – we spent time with them and could construct some idea of who they were. Here, however, the cast of characters is too large, and Herbert leaps from perspective to perspective so frequently that it’s hard to get a feel for any of the characters. I started to get interested in some of the main ones, like Miles Teg or Odrade, but then we’d leave them for too many pages. Stuff happens, and sometimes it’s interesting, but there’s very little sense of proper narrative construction.

The book wasn’t terrible. It was much better than God Emperor, and there were times when I did feel entertained. But that was balanced against too many times when I had to read through a cringe. It might not have bothered me so much – I’ve read plenty of cringe-worthy novels! – except that Dune has been one of my all-time favourite books for years, and Heretics made me question whether Dune would hold up if I re-read it. That, as far as I’m concerned, is this book’s worst crime.

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Other books in the Dune series:

  1. Dune
  2. Dune Messiah
  3. Children of Dune
  4. God Emperor of Dune
  5. Heretics of Dune
  6. Chapterhouse: Dune

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