[This post contains spoilers for those who have not read Dune or Dune Messiah, the previous books in the series].
Life is blooming on the desert planet of Arrakis. The dream of the long-dead planetologist Liet-Kynes is coming to reality as water, fields, clouds and plants slowly spread over the empty wastes. Alas, even on Dune, these changes are wreaking havoc. The giant sandworms, the megafauna worshipped as gods by the local Fremen tribes, are disappearing. They needed the dry sand to survive. Bringing water to Arrakis has made the environment uninhabitable for the planet’s indigenous wildlife.
Children of Dune is a novel about repercussions, especially those that are unseen. Leto and Ghanima, the twin heirs of the Atreides line, are now nine years old, but possessing inherited race memories going back centuries. This inherited knowledge is a poisoned chalice that affects their aunt Alia too, now the regent of the galactic empire.
Bewildered by a chorus of voices inside her mind, Alia falls victim to a spirit from the past, which possesses her and turns her into a tyrant, dedicated to the destruction of her own family. The enemies of the Atreides, both living and dead, constantly seek to undermine their rule. While these plots and counterplots are ongoing, Arrakis is changing irrevocably and only the nine-year-old twins are aware that it is happening.
As the third volume in Frank Herbert’s Dune epic, Children of Dune is the least successful so far. The first novel, Dune, featured an epic struggle for the soul of the empire, whilst also arguing for the need for greater environmental awareness amongst the public. Dune Messiah was a warning about the dangers of extremism, against the background of a palace coup organised by bizarre and ruthless preternatural beings.
Children of Dune by contrast lacks the compelling adversaries of the Atreides family that we saw in the other books. It also lacks an overall message, making the book rather shallow in comparison to its forebears. Furthermore, the story doesn’t really get going until after almost two hundred pages have passed, and then hurtles to its conclusion with a great deal of the action happening offstage.
This novel is something of a failure, perhaps also because it is difficult to relate to nine-year-old protagonists in a space opera setting. It also pushes the boundaries of the believable. The Dune series has always had a strong vein of hocus-pocus and science fantasy to it, but in the fate of Leto II, things go beyond what we can accept as plausible story elements. Hence Children of Dune is a disappointment, but not so bad a one as to put me off reading the next books in the series.