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God Emperor of Dune

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the Dune sequels is the jump in time between the end of one book and the start of another. Things inevitably end on a bit of a cliff-hanger, and you start a book wanting to find out what happened immediately after the previous one finished, only to discover that the plot has moved on a decade or so 'off screen' and that the world has changed in various subtle and not so subtle ways.

When I first read God Emperor of Dune, therefore, my initial reaction was to hate it; not only had the narrative jumped forward again, but this time the temporal dislocation was not a mere handful of years, but over three and a half millennia. Little was recognisable from the universe I had grown to love over the course of the first three books: Dune was no longer a desert planet, but a verdant paradise, and Leto II had completed his metamorphosis into a half-sandworm, half-human hybrid. The changes, to be blunt, were quite jarring and I almost gave up with the series. Having enjoyed Herbert's writing so far, however, I decided to persevere and quickly found the book growing on me.

This is chiefly because God Emperor of Dune's greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. The inevitable changes worked on the universe by shifting the narrative so far into the future mean that, after overcoming the initial disappointment that the world no longer feels like the Dune you have become accustomed to, the new setting suddenly becomes fascinating in its own right as a fresh source of mysteries. By changing the very feel of the world so radically, the slate has almost been wiped clean and the stakes are not so high for Children of Dune to live up to the legacy of its predecessors.

What makes this work so well is Herbert's decision to write much of the book from the perspective of a clone (or 'ghola', to use the correct term) of Duncan Idaho. As the story unfolds, the reader gets to see this strange new world from the eyes of a character whose last memories are of a similar point in time to their own. This 'man from the present awakes in the distant future' is by no means a new ploy, and often feels forced in other books. It works here, however, because it follows three previous books that did not utilise such a trick to ease the reader into their world gently; as the reader, you're already intimately familiar with this fictional world, only at an earlier epoch, and somehow it feels all the more real because of it.

Thanks to this sense of freshness, I found myself at the end of Children of Dune having enjoyed it more than I had the first two sequels. After several re-reads of the series, my feelings towards the book are little changed; I feel less of a need to be awed by it, and can, therefore, relax more and just enjoy a good story. The world of the first Dune novel is the most compelling science fiction universe I have encountered, but, compelling as it is, endless rehashes of the same themes would have eventually become stale and boring. In many respects I'm glad Herbert chose to 'quit while he was ahead' and do something truly different with the world. Is it as good as the first book? Or course not. Is it an enjoyable science fiction story? Absolutely.