Book Review: ‘Mentats of Dune’

One of my favorite parts of this job is reviewing books. Every time we get a new shipment of review copies in, it feels like Christmas. And when I get a package from Tor, my usual response is an embarrassingly jubilant dance which is somewhere between puppy-wiggle spazz-out and Kermit-arm-flail, typically accompanied by a high-pitched SQUEEEE! Ask anyone who’s seen me open one of these packages. They’ll tell you I’m not exaggerating.

My fellow Kryptonians, I have a confession to make. When I opened this particular package from Tor, the one containing Mentats of Dune, there was no wiggly-puppy spazz-out, no Kermit-arm-flail, and there was a heart-wrenching groan in place of the usual squeal of delight. You see, I had studiously avoided reading any of the “post-Frank” Dune books for years. I couldn’t bear the thought of being let down and carrying around the bitterness of a great book series ruined by a bad continuation; I couldn’t stand to see Dune jump the shark. It was with great skepticism and no small amount of trepidation that I sat down to read Mentats of Dune.

Never mind that I hadn’t read the dozen or so novels that came between Mentats and the original Frank Herbert series. At no point in the book did I feel lost. In fact, I felt, from page one, as though I were visiting an old friend I’d been missing for years. Yes, we had some catching up to do, but Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson did a fantastic job of bringing the reader up to speed in a way that doesn’t feel like a boring info-dump lecture. And even more importantly, the visual imagery and the tone of the book were Dune. I was immediately sucked back into the world of Dune (Duniverse?), and happily flying along through an exciting new tale: my first since the late ’80s. Oh, how I missed you!

Mentats of Dune picks up about a century after the end of the Butlerian Jihad, in which mankind frees itself from the tyrannical rule of the “thinking machines,” and begins at a time when those in favor of re-creating some kinds of thinking machines and advanced technology are locking onto a collision course with the Butlerian hard-liners, who want no computers whatsoever. As the book opens, Salvador Corrino is on the Imperial throne, which is unfortunate, as he’s a rather weak leader and a weak man, and he quickly finds himself caught in the cross-fire between the two factions.

The Butlerian faction (which is, by this time, a cult, more than anything else) is currently led by one Manford Torondo, who, before Chapter One even begins, demands that, “every planetary leader sign my antitechnolgy pledge. If any refuse, my Butlerians — and God — will know who they are. No one can hide.”

And in this corner, we find Josef Venport, director of Venport Holdings, a corporation which has a virtual monopoly on fold-space travel, because they create all of the Navigators, and because they use navigational computers. There are some other companies that attempt to compete with Venport, but their ships keep getting lost and blown up in horrific “accidents.” Because Venport’s fleet is larger, faster, and more reliable than anyone else’s, they are the official carrier of the Imperial military, and almost all of the spice in the universe. Josef Venport responds to Torondo’s pledge demand, “This is the decree of Venport Holdings: No VenHold cargo ship or passenger transport shall trade with any planet that signs Manford Torondo’s antitechnology pledge. We will deliver no goods or passengers, transmit no communications, engage in no commerce with any world that shares his dangerous, barbarian philosophy.”

As Torondo and his followers show a disturbing willingness to engage in terrorism for the purpose of “protecting” mankind from the evils of technology, planetary leaders and the emperor all find themselves in a situation where there is no right choice.

Meantime, Gilbertus Albans has founded a Mentat school in order to teach humans to become human computers. It seems that mentats should be a hot commodity in this climate, and to some degree, they are, but even they are not above the troubles that are brewing, and Albans has an agenda of his own.

Mother Superior Raquella has made a start at re-organizing the Sisterhood, which was largely destroyed after one of their own reported to the Emperor that they were secretly using computers to maintain their breeding program records. A splinter group has formed at the Imperial court, though, behind the very Sister, Dorotea, who set off the destruction in the first place.

And this is just the bones of the tale. The story is rich with details: characters you can really sink your teeth into either cheering for or despising, treachery, gray heroes, hidden agendas, old feuds brought down through the generations, and new ones springing up in unexpected places. Skeletons aren’t staying in anyone’s closets, and as they come out, the book becomes the vibrant and intricate tapestry we’ve come to love and expect from Dune.

Mentats of Dune most certainly does the original series justice. It’s a worthy addition to a beloved classic, and I’m eagerly anticipating going back to read the rest of the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson installments. And, yes, when I finished Mentats of Dune, there was a puppy-wiggle spazz-out, Kermit-arm-flail dance, and squeals of delight.

Tune in to The Event Horizon tomorrow night, Saturday May 3, 2014, at 9:00 p.m. Pacific as Gene Turnbow and Susan Fox interview Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson. We’ll broadcast an encore at 4:00 p.m. Pacific on Sunday, May 4.

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