A cloaked spaceship carries a disparate band of refugees from the planet Chapterhouse. Among them are the last loyal servants of House Atreides, a handful of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, and six young sandworms stashed in the hold. They are fleeing from an unknown yet deadly persistent Enemy, which chased them into a different universe where they now drift, searching for a path forward or a place to rest.
Meanwhile, back on Chapterhouse, the Mother-Commander of the New Sisterhood is preparing for the arrival of that very same mysterious Enemy. Murbella is trying to hold together a fragile alliance of the previously opposed Bene Gesserits and Honored Matres, two mystic matriarchal organisations with deadly mental powers, seduction techniques and fighting skills.
Behind the scenes, the secretive shape-shifting Face Dancers are pulling strings, replacing the key figures of organisations with their own disguised operatives, working toward their own apocalyptic agenda, and advancing the final battle for the galaxy. As alliances are forged and shattered, deals and double-crossings committed and machinations played out, all these factions and more are drawn into a maelstrom of intrigue and conflict, against the backdrop of the steady advance of the unidentified Enemy.
Hunters of Dune is a thick book. It is also the first half of a pair; with the forthcoming Sandworms of Dune it is intended to be the final end-cap to the vast story arcs of the Dune universe. The synopsis above (which is a mere sliver of the state of play at the book’s beginning) provides some indication of the difficulty of writing such a novel – the sheer weight of back-story means that it takes well over a hundred pages for Herbert and Anderson to introduce all the main characters and groups, and start their storylines.
The plot is huge, intricate and convoluted, spanning the events of two decades – and as such a certain rapidity of storytelling is required, simply to cover all the ground. The end result is a book that would probably be either an uphill struggle or completely opaque to a reader with no prior experience of the Dune universe – especially due to a number of the main characters being cloned reincarnations of figures from the earlier works. This produces a certain degree of inescapable info-dumping, as character histories are exposited in brief chunks. It also means that, by necessity, the book is a little thin on detail. However, the mass of history almost becomes a minor theme in itself – as Duncan Idaho says (page 158), “One of [Leto II’s] most prominent lessons was that humanity should learn to think on a truly large timescale.”
Slight on incidentals the writing may be, but that means sheer pace of plot can take the foreground. The Dune books have always dealt with a wide range of human themes – faith, religion, destiny and prophecy all run through the story like veins of ore beneath the surface. It is regrettable that they are not mined more thoroughly, though that would have added further bulk to an already immense tome. The more sf-nal ideas in the work (cloning, artificial intelligence, interstellar travel) are convenient plot tools rather than the focus of the narrative. Indeed, the Dune stories have always had a somewhat ‘science fantasy’ feel to them, in that the plots could be easily displaced into well-realised fantastic or historical milieus without a great degree of alteration. ‘Hard’ sf, they are not.
But hard sf was never the intent of Frank Herbert’s original novels, nor their successors. The core sequence, while exciting and adventurous, were always very focussed on the interactions of characters, using the various fictional factions as avatars for real-world religions, philosophies and ideologies, then playing them off against each other. Brian Herbert and Anderson have made a conscious decision to step away from Frank’s style of writing in favour of the action-driven mode that they espouse. While this produces a novel that will hold its own against its competitors in the modern market, it means that the absence of the magic of the earlier works can be felt, not to mention that of Frank Herbert’s baroque and intricate writing style. This will doubtless be of little concern to avid followers of the now-sprawling franchise, who have been eagerly anticipating this book for some time. They demand the continuation of the story; Hunters of Dune delivers.
Of course, the debt of invention it owes to the original works is inescapable. The judgement of whether it truly matches up to the promise of a satisfactory ending to one of the best-known sf stories of all time is best left to those closest to the franchise in terms of hunger for its completion. And while it is unlikely to eclipse the reputation for sheer invention and majesty held by Frank Herbert’s original novels, its success is nevertheless an absolute certainty.
[Note: this review originally published in Interzone #207; republished here with the permission of the editor.]