In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, by Karoline Leach

March 16, 2014 at 14:59 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

DreamchildLife will always be hard for the biographer. There really is nobody famous who has not already been biographied to death, and the lives of interesting people without fame are never going to appeal to publishers. The biographer’s task, then, has been reduced to that of essayist, and his lot is to find some aspect of a celebrated life that can be challenged, psychoanalysed, enhanced, or otherwise marketed to compete with another dozen definitive biographies on the (probably long-deceased and unlikely to grow litigious) subject.

It is tempting therefore to recommend this book chiefly on the merits of Leach’s startling and provoking conclusions: her fearless heresies that threaten to tear down the temple of Carrollian orthodoxy and instantly demolish a hundred years of scholarship. In short, something truly original; the sole selling point and crucial lie of almost every biography in print.

“The changed, newly depressive, freshly discursive diary voice that Dodgson presents on the other side of the four ‘lost’ years tells its own story. The alteration is profound. Aside from the sense of sin and depression, there is a new edgy cynicism in his work.”

-In the Shadow of the Dreamchild

It cannot be ignored that there is something rare and precious in a ubiquitous boast that happens once to be unashamedly true, and part of the charm in Leach’s book is that she does not rely only upon new interpretations or weighing certain evidence differently, but on new facts and new documents that have simply been ignored by her peers. That she comes out with new conclusions is therefore wholly unsurprising, and makes this book indispensable reading for scholars of Carroll, and indisputably the first stop for any casual reader looking to discover more about his or her favourite author.

This aspect of the book–the new reading of Charles Dodgson and his life–no matter how heterodox and bold it might be, is only one part of this biography’s success.  After all, it has already been remarked that this book’s bold success is, of course, only what every modern biography claims to contain. Biographies in general ought to find a particular balance that they hold in common with well-written histories. Whether the story of a particular man or the story of a particular war; whether the life of a woman or the life of an empire, the genres are remarkably similar.

A biography must be written with a definite glimpse of the author. It should not merely be the sifted recrudescence of the subject’s acts and papers, but should be like a comfortable fireside talk with a fellow who has known the subject intimately, and with a few drinks will begin to reminisce warmly and vividly. Interpretation and conclusion are welcome as peripheries and abhorrent as a driving force. When a biographer begins to say things like “he must have…” or even worse, “he thought…” then he begins to enter dangerous waters.

Here is where Leach performs magnificently. She includes only enough analysis of Carroll’s works and writings as are immediately germane, instead reconstructing an elaborate storyline of the man’s life. Like any intimate friend might have, she has certain very strong opinions of what Carroll was and what Carroll did, but she impresses these thoughts on the reader by a careful tailoring of her narrative, not by a tedious pseudo-intellectual essay.

At the end of any biography, the reader is going to have to come to a decision, whether he will agree with what has been nothing more nor less than a carefully structured essay to persuade him to see a person (or event) in a certain light. It is plain that regardless of her evident skills as an essayist and her dilligence as a researcher, Leach will not persuade all of her readers. But it is extremely unlikely that anybody who takes the time to join her on a winding path through the life of one of the nineteenth century’s most singular writers will at all regret the journey.

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Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

December 28, 2013 at 09:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

Romanitas

7/10

7/10

The writer of this review site has commented several times on his repeated disappointment, regret, and guilty pleasure that follows almost any alternate history novels with gloomy inevitability. It is always with a heavy heart that a new one is begun, and always with a heavier heart that it is later set down. Romanitas provides–not so much an exception–as a chink of light that suggests all is not so dreary in this field as might be supposed.

“‘It isn’t justice,’ said Cleomenes, unhesitatingly. Varius snorted a little, scornfully. Cleomenes added, ‘And you will help us find Marcus Novius.'”

-Romanitas

It is not for her writing that Sophia McDougall stands out from the morass of alternate fiction writers. Her writing is competent and engaging, though overprone to slackness and a passive habit that suggests at times her creation is at risk of escaping her abilities. Neither is it for her concept. Her concept is certainly fresh and initially exciting, and while at times the grey old world of the real shows through, this allows her to build a world that is believable and visceral, as well as being a novelty.

One of her greatest successes, though, is her refusal to grandstand or monologue on behalf of her own cleverness. It is her staunch refusal to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing how the world of Romanitas is different and worth the read. There are occasional explanations of ancient history, and how her timeline diverged from what the reader will know as real life. Sensibly, some of this is even handled in a brief appendix. At no point is the reader given cause to wonder what happened to the story, and why he’s being lectured on political events utterly irrelevant to the current predicament of the main characters.

With these modest successes and impressively-avoided pitfalls, Romanitas progresses pleasantly but not thunderously. As with any fugitive plot, there are moments when the willing suspension of disbelief wears a little thin, or where the necessity of a limited viewpoint will annoy even a patient reader. There are chapters that seem nothing but a litany of rushed poetry on grey mountains and windswept highways. There are at least one or two deus ex machinae littered around, which make the plot seem more ragged than it really is. In spite of at least two sequels, Romanitas reads admirably on its own, without the phantom shadow of an unborn sibling hanging over the ending. The verdict can only be that this is an imperfect work, and a book that will require patience at times, but for anybody in earnest search of good alternate histories to read, this would be a fine place to start.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )

TheOceanAtTheEndOfTheLane

8/10

8/10

The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.

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1356, by Bernard Cornwell

November 2, 2013 at 09:48 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

1356

8/10

8/10

Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.

Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.

“…the Black Friar walked north. He was going home, home to the tower. He carried la Malice and the fate of Christendom. And he vanished into the darkness.”

-1356

This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.

The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.

This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.

This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.

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Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, by Philip K. Dick

October 5, 2013 at 09:13 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

HumptyDumptyOakland

7/10

7/10

Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.

“What a waste it had all been. All the work. Devotion to fixing people’s cars…All those years, he thought. And before, trying different things. Had he learned anything?”

-Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.

Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.

It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )

OrdinaryKnight

7/10

7/10

The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

August 18, 2013 at 10:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , )

DuneMessiah

7/10

7/10

A clear victim of Second Album Syndrome, Dune Messiah is a difficult but ultimately interesting book that suffers from its over-indulgence, and manages only to be ‘good’ where its prequel was good and enjoyable.

There is something truly damaging about stories that endeavour to look beneath the myth and beneath the magic and begin to question how things work. There is bound to be a disappointment in any story that seeks to explain what happens next. This is particularly the case with adventure stories. A narrative about the middle age of Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay would have been tiresome; the story of Frodo’s journey to the Undying Lands would have been unreadable; Jim Hawkins’ search for the elusive Long John Silver might have been of interest, but everything of worth that it brought to the table would have removed something else from the majesty of the original story. Even the apocryphal books of the Maccabees are considerably less exciting and thrilling than the canonical Bible.

Dune left the reader with a towering fait accompli and a magical sense of high destiny and immaculate purpose. There was hardly an implied “happily ever after”, but there certainly was a sense of “magically ever after”. Frank Herbert actually did an excellent job of transcribing an ending that was positively thrumming with impending and implied mysticism and adventure into an excellent sequel, but it was emphatically a summing up and a postscript conclusion, not a new adventure. The surprise is not found in the discovery that Dune Messiah is not as good as Dune; it is found in the fact that it is better than it might have been. Although that is good news, it is not the best verdict that might be offered of any book.

“He reeked of memories that had glimpsed eternity. To see eternity was to be exposed to eternity’s whims, oppressed by endless dimensions. The oracle’s false immortality demanded retribution. Past and future became simultaneous.”

-Dune Messiah

Messiah stands the strongest when it attempts to rebuild the sense of grand universal myth that vibrated so wonderfully in its prequel. While it does great damage to the picture of the Muad’Dib presented in Dune by dismantling every skeleton and attempting to painstakingly rebuild each with flesh and skin, there is a tantalising glimpse into a wider universe that allows the book to stand at least with its head held high. Its success, in other words, is not in its exposition and revelations, but in the creation of new skeletons: new unanswered questions and veiled mysteries.

Its cast of main characters is not quite bungled, but also demonstrates none of the expertise that Herbert showed in his earlier book. In spite of having far fewer important figures, the only ones who really shine are those imported from the prequel, and readers will feel that a great opportunity was missed to introduce a new vein of richness into the series. A notable exception is the introduction of the Tleilaxu, who provide a nebulous and intriguing set of antagonists almost fit to equal the Harkonnen.

This book is certainly worth reading, but is perhaps best read with reservations and with lower expectations. It is certainly science fiction at its best, but it is emphatically not Frank Herbert at his best.

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Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

August 3, 2013 at 19:00 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , , , )

HeartOfDarkness

8/10

8/10

This is as difficult a book to review as it is to read. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this weblog what a rare pleasure it is to finish reading a book, and only recollect afterwards that one has been forced to overlook no clumsy grammar or contrived plotline, and forgive the author for no grave errors. We can talk about a willing suspension of disbelief: perhaps the time has come to talk about a willing suspension of criticism. Conrad is another of these talented authors for whom this willing suspension of criticism is unnecessary. His novel is brisk and rich in language and in detail. Heart of Darkness reads like a stone plunged into a calm pool: sudden, abrupt, harsh, and without apology. It is delightful to read, simply for the eloquent lavishness of the author’s pen. On that account, it is a very good book indeed.

“‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the darkest places of the earth.'”

-Heart of Darkness

The structural conceit of the unlikely narrator regaling a boat full of dozy sailors with his tale is an uncertain prospect, and can seem like a vague annoyance when it crops up for a sentence or two at rare intervals; nothing else in the manner in which the book is laid out can possibly cause dismay. It is the story itself that seems a little unsatisfying, after a while. There is a heavy atmosphere of leaden inevitability, borne out stolidly and without much in the way of relief. Almost everything in this short story happens as if it were predestined, and happens very quickly at that.

“The horror! The horror!”

-Heart of Darkness

If the darkness is in a hurry to gobble the narrator and all his accomplices up, then it is in a greater hurry to belch them all up at the end. While there is a certain amount of dramatic tension, it all takes place so rapidly that there is really no time for the reader to either digest what has happened, or adapt to it. This is an important book, and deserving of its place in literary history. It is a pleasure to read, but not necessarily a pleasure to reflect upon.

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News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

July 27, 2013 at 14:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

NewsOfAKidnapping

7/10

7/10

There are many peculiar things about this book. It is not like Márquez’s fiction. It is too straightforward, too politely arranged and linear. There are too many straight lines and sober summaries. But then, it is unlike so many nonfiction books, as well. Garcia Márquez has no need to trumpet his own particular style or voice over the events he describes (his style has plenty of outlets), and so the narrative is unnervingly raw, without the bluster of a newspaper or the bustling self-importance of a professional writer.

“Maruja and Beatriz stood motionless in front of the closed door, not knowing how to take up their lives again, until they heard the engines in the garage and then the sound fading away in the distance. Only then did they realize that the television and radio had been taken away to keep them from knowing how the night would end.”

-News of a Kidnapping

The author’s attraction towards the macabre and the tragic are one point of resonance in his choice of this particular story to tell. In a sense, this book demonstrates a single side of the magic realism genre that Márquez helped to create: the harrowing story of the kidnapping, with all of its unsavoury boors and capricious thugs, is told with a sense of reverent wonder at the majesty of the hallowed normal. There are no casual treatments of supernatural happenings, but in spite of the real setting there is a subtle and underlying sense that something quite extraordinary might be taking place.

Ultimately, the weakest part of this story is simply the fact that it is not the most interesting of events to read about. A decades-old kidnapping that dominated the headlines of a distant corner of the globe for a matter of months, before coming to a generally unremarkable end will struggle to find a place on a bookshelf crammed with mystical kingdoms and daring exploits. It will even struggle to find a place on a shelf containing only books by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But there is an appeal in the honesty of the writing. It is a shame that more great writers do not follow this example, and humble themselves into writing stories that neither shake the earth nor shake the reader, but which are worth telling anyway.

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Dune, by Frank Herbert

July 13, 2013 at 15:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

10/10

DuneThe 200,000-word bulk of Dune is an intimidating mountain to tackle, but the reward is palpable in only the first few pages. An excellent example of the fairytale set  in space, and remarkable in its pacing and its rich attention to detail. Frank Herbert does not allow himself to luxuriate in his own cleverness, the way some writers do when they become enamoured of their creations (even justifiably). He moves lightly and patiently through the immense landscape of Arrakis, and is willing to plant seeds and allow them to grow to maturity in his readers before bringing them to fruition tens of chapters later.

“They were staring out across the sand, the realization in their expressions: there was no returning to Caladan for them…”

-Dune

There are clear moments where it becomes noticeable that he is deliberately hanging Chekhov’s proverbial gun over a mantelpiece; slowly and painstakingly sketching out a scenario and storing it for a hundred pages hence. There are times when Frank Herbert errs on the heavier side of exposition (although generally carried in dialogue which is a delight to read). These moments remind his reader that they are on the cusp of delving into something at once massive and intricate. They are distractions, but are neither heavy enough nor frequent enough to become a constant annoyance. Rather, there are times when the reader will see them as a friendly helping hand halfway up an otherwise forbidding cliff.

“Muad’Dib! Muad’Dib!”

-Dune

Unsurprisingly for a fairytale, Herbert’s characters are familiar things, from the noble father to the rogueish sidekicks; from the prodigious youth to the demoniacal and grotesque villain. Thankfully Herbert is an able enough storyteller to mould real flesh onto these well-used skeletons, and even add some unexpected depth to some. There is some real pleasure in revisiting an old trope in literature, and finding it expertly polished and cleverly deployed. Herbert shines, therefore, not in coming up with something so startlingly original, but in retelling an old story of long ago and far away in a manner so skilled that the reader forgets he knows exactly what is coming; forgets he knows to expect neither treason from the heroes nor contrition from the villains; forgets he is reading hundreds of thousands of words, and a monstrous amount of geographical and historical backstory. Forgets everything, in fact, but Dune.

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