Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Mentats Of Dune

Frank Herbert may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean the Dune universe is going to stop expanding anytime soon. Since 1999, Herbert’s son Brian, along with writing partner Kevin J. Anderson have been churning out Dune books of their own, actually eclipsing Frank’s output in number. Their, latest, Mentats of Dune, hit bookshelves today from the fine folks at Tor. A sequel to Sisterhood of Dune, Mentats is the second in the proposed Great Schools trilogy.

Set after the great jihad against the thinking machines, but before still before the events of the original novel, a new wave an anti-technology fervor is sweeping across the Imperium. Within this framework, Herbert and Anderson weave together more than half a dozen storylines, including Gilbertus Alban’s school where he teaches students to become “human computers,” the banished relics of the Rossack Sisterhood, the aged war hero Vorian Atreides’ attempts to make amends for his past and reconnect with his scattered family, and a Harkonen’s quest for vengeance, among others. There’s a lot going on here. And of course it wouldn’t be a real Dune book without spending some time on Arrakis with a sandworm or two. The various arcs span the galaxy, and delve into key pieces of Dune lore.

Even with all of this layered richness, full of sprawling family lines, the basic conflict of Mentats boils down to two sides of this clash. To one extreme you have the Butlerians of Manford Torando. Fanatically opposed to all technology, they use their numbers and religious zeal to force worlds into compliance or face the destructive consequences. On the other end of the spectrum are those with an almost equally militant dedication to all things technological. Willing to transform and deform, and even face death, in order to advance their position, they fold space and mutate to further their ends, placing profit and progress above all else. There are shades of gray inside the black and white world, and the people caught in the middle are just trying to survive and live their own lives, but these two polar opposites color everything in this book.

Like with so many ambitious, multi-layered stories like this, some of the threads are so much more interesting and engaging than others. Each chapter bounces from strand to strand, and some of them you’re excited to get read and tear through, while there are others that you look at, and think oh, maybe this is a good place to pause for the night. The structure and the completeness of each separate branch is impressive, but at times it just feels like Herbert and Anderson are showing off.

Mentats takes a good long while to get moving, which is easily the biggest knock against the novel. With so many parts, each one, at least initially, telling a distinct, separate story, you have to wade through a colossal amount of set up. Every setting, every set of characters appear on a different world, and each requires an individual introduction, along with all of the world building that goes along with that. The deserts of Arrakis are significantly different than the hazardous wild swamps of Lampadas, for example. Part of a larger whole, each thread begins separately before eventually coming together. The characters all play a part in the overarching drama, but on a personal level, they all have their own shit going on, their own primary conflicts. After diving into a couple of these set ups, you just want to move on and get to the point.

You’re most on board near the middle of the book, once the various conflicts, motives, and characters have all been introduced and put in motion. This is where the pace quickens and smoothes out, and you start to see how the pieces fit together. It feels mean to say that Mentats starts slow, and I’ve never been one of those people who demands immediate action right out of the gate, but Mentats starts way slow.

The narrative is massive and sprawling, and connected to both what comes before and what follows—the fact that there’s going to be at least one more installment in this branch of the Dune universe, if not more, is readily apparent. Because of this, Mentats has that sort of endless quality that you find in franchises like Game of Thrones, and you get the distinct feeling that this could very well go on forever.

Overall, fans of the franchise should be happy with Mentats of Dune. The novel is full of nods and allusions to the intricate mythology that the Herbert boys and Anderson have created, and once you finally get rolling, the action propels you along at a decent clip, through a densely plotted tale of power, betrayal, revenge, and all of those goodies.

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