I was staying at fuego’s the other night, and I was looking for something that I could spend a few minutes reading without too much commitment. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Hemingway, but it was in Czech. An interesting project, but not the few minutes of entertainment I was looking for. Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert caught my eye. I decided to read just the opening of the book, to see how a well-known author constructs his first words to his readers. Then I would put the book back on the shelf and get on with my life, perhaps a little wiser.
I made myself comfortable and opened the book. The first sentence is a quote. Ordinarily opening with a quote is a risky move because in your head the context is there, but the reader doesn’t have a clue. So even a very dramatic statement is not going to have nearly the effect you expect. If the statement is very short, it’s not so bad, but when the reader has no idea who is speaking, not even gender or clues about how the speech is pitched, the reader will have to defer understanding the statement until he or she gets more data. It is just a bunch of words, waiting to be interpreted. A dramatic moment wasted.
I say “ordinarily” because there are plenty of exceptions. I regularly start my stories with someone speaking (though these days almost all of those openers die in revision), and other people do, too. My corollary to the above rule is “Only start with a quote if it has context and characterization built in.” Off the top of my head, the line “I don’t care who you say you are, you’re not going to see the King,” tells a lot about the circumstances, and even tells us that the speaker is probably not important, it’s who’s being spoken to that matters. It’s got setting, conflict, and is a clear marker that the following will be a fantasy story. So, it’s not bad. Still, is it any better than, “The guard’s armor squeaked with rusty joints as he stepped in front of the door. ‘I don’t care…'”? The second version says volumes about guard (and by extension the king) as perceived by the one being addressed. When the guard says his bit, we already have mild contempt for him.
An interesting project: find works that start with a quote that cannot be easily improved with an introductory sentence. Figure out what they have in common.
So, book review. Right. That’s why we’re here. Herbert opens this novel with a quote, and he most certainly has not found an exception to the above rule. I started right off with a feeling of disorientation. That feelilng did not go away. Heretics of Dune is a textbook example of how not to start a novel. I was bombarded with made-up words, names of people and organizations, leading statements that went nowhere, things left understood between characters without letting me in on it, and on and on. I read chapter 1 with a giant WTF?! hovering over my fizzing head.
It’s probably a good time to point out that I’ve read the book before. And I’m still confused. It’s been a long time, but I’m familiar enough with Frank Herbert’s universe that I made it through that chapter. I pity the poor slob who reads this before reading the many prequels.
It was, overall, a pretty frustrating chapter one. Chapter two wasn’t much better. By chapter three we were meeting new characters that don’t have histories or secrets we needed to know. And just like that I read the whole damn book.
Which leads to the central mystery: I only planned to read the first bit. It wasn’t very good. But for some reason I kept reading. This, somehow, is Herbert’s great skill. He hides things from me, both by not telling and by deliberately obscuring them behind jargon and dogma. (I ground my teeth every time I read something like, (slight paraphrase) “Lucilla understood the full scope of Taraza’s plan. Holy crap! That was the most amazing plan ever! The implications were astonishing!” and then not tell us what Lucilla figured out. AAAARRRGGGHHH!) He assumes knowledge I don’t have. He flatters his characters by saying they have qualities that their actions demonstrate they lack.
All that, and I read the whole book, even though I didn’t intend to, in three sittings.
So what’s in there that kept me going? It’s an interesting question. The writing itself flows well; despite a rich vocabulary the words did not get in the way of the story. I think what really kept me going, however, was a handful of the characters. Not all of them; the principle rivals were all crippled by flaws that undermined thier rivalness, and some of the good guys were too damn good. But there was real internal conflict in some of the characters, people fighting against known flaws and weaknesses. (To make things more interesting, some of those perceived weaknesses sound a lot like strengths to us.)
There is one little girl who comes in out of the desert in a circumstance that has ‘miracle’ written all over it. The local priesthood adopts her, and what do you know? she turns into a spoiled brat. It was nice to meet a character who will obviously be a major factor in the history of humanity portrayed with natural human frailties. She also had a knack for superpowers.
Superpowers abound in this book; some powers are shared by members of the various secret societies, while rogue superpowers manifest unpredictably in individuals (of proper breeding). Politics are everywhere as well, and the core theme of the book might be condensed to “people with superpowers wrangling over how to rule the rest of us.” Herbert, I think, would have disagreed; his good elite are the ones who still care about the welfare of the common man. All the characters in the story are among the elite, however. Even one of the most ordinary of the good guys manages to grow spectacular superpowers (super-duperpowers) by the end.
Speaking of the end, I was running out of pages and there were still a whole lot of loose ends flying around in the narrative. People who needed to interact at length hadn’t even met yet. I knew this book was part of a series, but it was starting to look like this was going to be one of my most aggravating of peeves, the book that doesn’t even pretend to end. Happily, that was not the case. It wasn’t the best ending imaginable, but the end of one of the major characters marks a fitting end to this installment in the series. We get open-ended closure for many of the others — lessons learned, resolutions made, plans revealed — and I was satisfied with that.
It occurs to me that this might be the least useful review I’ve ever written, in terms of advising people whether or not to read a book (which, to be honest, isn’t really my goal). If you haven’t read any of the prequels, do not, by any means, start with this one. If you have read Dune, you’ve already decided whether to continue with the series. I’m guessing that if you did read Dune it frustrated you, but you read the rest of the series anyway, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and you’re glad you did.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.