If you marveled at Dune and Dune Messiah, found Children of Dune and God Emperor to be reasonably good reads, sat through Heretics and Chapterhouse in the hopes they'd get better, and picked up House Atreides to give Brian Herbert a chance ... please, stop right there and don't read this book.

This book is bad. No, that's not really strong enough. Cranked-out Star Trek novelizations and August Derleth's rip-offs of Lovecraft are bad. Heretics of Dune was bad. By those lights, Dune: House Harkonnen is an abomination in the eyes of Shai-Hulud. In violation of the first tenet of the Orange Catholic Bible, it disfigureth the soul.

Let me put it this way: Frank Herbert proved himself a master of what might be called high science fantasy. Like Stephen R. Donaldson or even George Lucas, he created a world suitable to the telling of an epic tale, and he told it. The strength of the first few Dune books, though, is not just the storytelling, but the teller's basic and profound respect for the characters, their beliefs, and their worldviews. That, after all, is why a tale of religious idealism, of all things, still works in Dune's cynical far future.

In Dune: House Harkonnen, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson evince a fraction of Frank Herbert's writing ability, but little to none of that respect. The horrors of the Harkonnen clan are played out not as tragedy or even common melodramatic villainy, but for vulgar shock value. The most brutal act of rape-murder I've ever read on the printed page is written as a horror-movie splatter scene -- and the major character for whose torment the act is committed continues to plod through the story, outraged but inhumanly untouched. The sacred Bene Gesserit become psychic bogey-women: not the creatures of hieratic plots and profound mystery, but things that go bump in the night. The Harkonnens' uncorrupted cousins, the Rabbans of the planet Lankiveil, are written as such fucking goody-two-shoes, such Smurfs, that one can't be surprised their son Glossu, the Beast Rabban, turned out the way he did.

For the record, I found Herbert and Anderson's Dune: House Atreides to be a reasonable attempt, if quite rough and fanfic-ish around the edges, to re-create the world of Dune. The sequel, sad to say, is a malformed disfigurement of that world.

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