‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert

I know everyone raves about this book… but for me, Dune was a mixed bag. On one hand, I enjoyed the desert setting, the fantasy elements, and the entire premise of the thing. On the other hand, I didn’t really relate to any of the characters, and a large portion of the book felt like something of a chore to read… which, let’s face it, is never a good sign.

But first: the positives.

I actually loved the beginning of the book, and quite quickly found myself warming to the main characters Jessica, Paul and Leto. Furthermore, the mythos – the gom jabbar and the Bene Gesserit and the Kwisatz Hadderach – intrigued me. I liked how I was thrown in at the deep end, and that the author was clearly intending to reveal things gradually rather than just explain it all straight away.

Dune by Frank HerbertThen again, I did feel there was too much exposition at this point, and that dialogue was being used a little too much to try and convey some of the background; I felt like the characters were unnecessarily talking about things for the sake of the reader. And the mysterious things that started out so intriguing? They actually got quite annoying the more the book progressed. I got the sense that I was being excluded from something, and while this doesn’t always bother me (it’s pretty much one of the hallmarks of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, aka. my favourite fantasy series of all time) it really started the get on my nerves here, to the point where I’d grind my teeth any time the words ‘Bene Gesserit’ or ‘prescience’ were mentioned. And I no longer give even the smallest of flying fucks about the Kwisatz Hadderach.

Anyway. I enjoyed the beginning of the book for the sense of total upheaval it conveyed; how the protagonists were literally transported from one world to another within a matter of pages, and that this new world was totally alien and hostile. One of my favourite scenes in the whole book happens around this point: Leto, the ‘thopter, the sandworm, the spice factory, the daring rescue . . . I LOVED this epic scene.

But it all went downhill from there – beginning with the main character apparently undergoing some sort of off-page lobotomy. Alright, I (kind of) get why Paul doesn’t have much personality; but it still makes for an incredibly unsympathetic protagonist. And I think in some ways all of the characters suffered from this: I felt like I was watching them do things, but I was ignorant as to why they were doing them. This disconnect made me less invested in the story as a whole.

I was pretty interested in the Harkonnens. However, they could have been fleshed out a LOT more – particularly the Baron, who is a rather disappointing villain: two-dimensional and defined only by his greed and his homosexuality (which is presented very negatively in this instance, and is yet another aspect of the story to dislike with vehemence). I would’ve liked to learn more of the feud between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, and instead felt that the scenes with the Baron ad Feyd-Rautha were a little shallow and irrelevant.

Despite all my gripes, I did enjoy Dune; just not as much as I’d hoped. I kept waiting for it to turn into something spectacular, and for some reason I never felt it really delivered everything it could have done. The only aspect at which it excelled (or so I feel) is the setting. The author paints a very vivid picture of the desert planet (although I did sometimes feel like he didn’t stress enough about how hot and uncomfortable it must be!) and of a population who want to change the ecosystem and create a better world. The concept of having to wear ‘stillsuits’ in the desert also lent an air of realism, being a very practical rather than romantic view of the rebels. And the sandworms are a brilliant invention (although I preferred them at the beginning when they were scary, rather than later when they were just used as glorified donkeys).

To sum up, then: there were plenty of things I liked about Dune, and plenty more that I didn’t. While the characters lacked character and the action lacked action, the fantasy (rather than SF) elements – such as the knife-fights and the sandworms – were excellent. I just wish there had been more of these, and less of the Bene Gesserit bollocks.lauramhughes-sig

Note: the original version of this review was posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2015.

‘Ancillary Justice’ by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice won about a million SFF awards in 2014; and while I haven’t read enough of the other contenders’ work to judge whether this one truly deserved all the top spots, I can say that it had me rooting for the unlikely protagonist throughout, and left me wanting more. Ancillary Justice plays with futuristic possibilities of science and technology, and subverts the way we think about concepts such as humanity, social inequality and gender.

Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieIn Leckie’s future, ancillaries are a common feature on many ships. Created by fusing the AI of a spaceship with the body of a brain-dead human being, ancillaries are intelligent yet inhuman extensions of a ship’s consciousness. But although they are looked down upon by society and treated merely as pieces of equipment by those they serve, there is much more to some ancillaries than their creators could have anticipated: the protagonist of Ancillary Justice is (as the title suggests) an ancillary who is on a personal mission to exact revenge on the individual who betrayed her captain and destroyed her ship. Breq proves to be far more than simply a slave of the Radch, and is moulded yet not defined by her complicated interactions with those around her. As a protagonist she is unusual, intriguing and more than a little likeable.

I initially found the plot of Ancillary Justice to be slightly confusing, although this probably says more about my own lack of familiarity with the genre and its tropes than it does about the novel itself. However, I would have been prepared to endure even more confusion if it meant avoiding the infrequent yet unwarranted infodumps scattered throughout the beginning of the book. This doesn’t happen often enough to really detract from the story, but it has to be said that there are one or two awkward instances of the old ‘let’s have a detailed conversation about lots of things we as characters clearly already know about,’ where I would have preferred a gradual drip-feed of information instead. My usual diet of traditional fantasy doesn’t generally stretch my brain in these sorts of directions, and I find figuring things out for myself to be fun rather than frustrating.

The main thing I struggled to get my head around was the concept of the novel’s Ancillary Justice - winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2014antagonist, largely due to the somewhat bewildering use of pronouns used by characters with multiple embodiments. Thankfully things became much clearer as the novel progressed, as did the subtle differences between the three different incarnations of the protagonist herself: I came to really appreciate the divergences in her behaviour between the past and the present. In fact, I would love to read Ancillary Justice again in the future having finally got my head around the way things work in the Radch.

A point of interest within Ancillary Justice is the lack of gender in the imperial language of the Radch. As a result the first person narrator Breq refers to everyone as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. While this does lead to some confusion – namely in the instances where Breq is speaking in another language and is forced to try and pinpoint others’ gender in order to correctly address them – eventually it becomes such a natural part of the narrative that you stop even trying to figure out whether a character is a man or a woman because, in Leckie’s world, it simply doesn’t matter.

I would probably never have bought this novel if not for a bored evening spent searching for potential new reads using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. The beginning of Ancillary Justice – a chance meeting in suspicious circumstances with someone the protagonist has not seen in a thousand years – was sufficiently intriguing to hook me into buying, as was the clearly unconventional nature of the protagonist herself. The rest of the story is engaging and continues in a way that keeps the reader intrigued: it’s well-paced and nicely structured, with chapters that alternate between past and present to gradually reveal more and more about events leading up to the main plot.

Furthermore the reader is made to care about secondary characters, including those not central to the main plot, despite the fact that we’re encountering them through the impassive filter of an ‘inhuman’ AI. And of course there’s the AI herself: she’s the main focus of the novel and I really came to care about her story, enough that I want to immediately grab the next book in the series to see what’s next for Breq. Bring on Ancillary Sword!