Princess of Dune offers fans a new standalone story in the Dune universe that’s engaging enough to keep you reading, even as it feels out of place.
Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, having concluded their Caladan Trilogy just last year are returning, to the sands of Arrakis. Princess of Dune serves as yet another prequel story, this time set two years before the main events of Dune (which means it takes place in the year prior to the recent Caladan trilogy). As the title implies, the focus this time around is on two of the most important women in Paul Atreides life, who helped to shape his massive empire: Princess Irulan and Chani.
As with just about every Dune story, there are a number of story beats and subplots that keep things interesting throughout. It also makes it tough to discuss things without diving into spoilers. But I’ll do what I can!
There are essentially two different stories (one focused on Chani and the other, Irulan), which end up converging in order to tell a singular story…At least that’s the idea. On the Imperial world of Kaitain, Princess Irulan is working hard to ingratiate herself deeper into her father’s court as she eventually prepares to serve as the Empress. As she works hard to understand the machinations—and failings—of her Father’s empire, she must balance her loyalty to the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, all while growing restless with her own place in things.
As the oldest of her sisters, Irulan quite literally holds the “keys to the kingdom” via a marriage proposal (which is a key factor in Paul’s rise). When a brash young military man in the Imperial army boldly asks the Emperor for her hand in marriage, he unwittingly sets the stage for a brewing rebellion which will force Irulan to use all her wits to defuse.
Meanwhile, on the sands of Arrakis, Chani continues to chafe under the oppression of the vile Harkonnens. As her and her half-sibling seek new ways to fight back, they accidentally stumble upon a mystery involving the Guild Navigators and the insidious Tleilaxu. While she endeavors to make more of an impact and forge her own path with the Fremen, she soon finds herself caught up in bigger politics of the Imperium.
Yeah, I think that’s the best I can do without spoiling some of the more major plot points. Suffice it to say, the novel does exactly what it sets out to do and largely keeps the focus on the stories centered around these women. There’s no random Atredies appearance or subplot (which felt refreshing after the previous trilogy).
As you would expect, these separate stories end up converging/overlapping in some interesting ways. And by interesting, I largely mean a whole bunch of convenient happenstances. Obviously everything in a made-up story is ‘contrived,’ but the way certain events happen in Princess puts a big strain on the suspension of disbelief.
This is not necessarily because of how things happen in the story, but that some of them happen at all. There are a few things which just don’t feel in line with what we know about the characters nor the events the story takes place in. Yes, this is supposed to be an ‘untold’ story showing a new side of these characters, but certain things just don’t line up quite right and it feels more like the authors trying to force the story onto these characters.
Take Chani’s story, for example. The main impetus here is uncovering (and destroying) this hidden Tleilaxu base in order to earn a reprieve on bribe payments from the Navigators. The book paints it as a problem which could have massive, galactic-scale repercussions, but that’s not something even on Chani’s mind at this point in time. She could care less about things outside her people’s plight.
Hell, for a majority of her part in the book, the plot point feels almost abandoned as she and her brother undertake a mission of their own design to try and assassinate the Emperor. It’s only after this that they return to the initial Navigator/Tleilaxu plot (literally in the final chapters).
There was a point where I stopped and seriously wondered if I had forgotten about this plot being wrapped up in one of the other books, and thinking perhaps Princess was only showing the beginning of it we hadn’t seen. That’s how little the primary character thought about it, which resulted in it feeling like more of a rushed afterthought in the final pages.
Princess Irulan has a similar plot beat that doesn’t seem to fit her (which would be REAL spoilery to mention), but even the main focus of her segment just feels oddly placed. Her story revolves around her would-be suitor turned traitor and rebellion leader, and the primary driving factor in the Caladan trilogy is about Duke Leto getting embroiled in a different rebellion/revolutionary group who strikes out at the Emperor. Being that these stories take place only a year apart…it’s just kinda weird!
Both Princess of Dune and the Caladan books even feature direct attacks at the Imperial home planet. Generally speaking, it would make sense for a universe spanning empire, run by a relatively corrupt family for millenia, to have multiple brewing rebellions. The Caladan trilogy makes no mention of the prior attacks (or Irulan’s role in them), and being that it takes place only a year later makes the timing more of an issue. It makes it harder for me to buy into it overall, or feel any sort of tension/stakes.
Princess of Dune unfortunately trips into the classic prequel pitfalls. It’s placement in the timeline robs most of the story of any real sense of tension (it’s simply too close to main events), and the actions of certain characters feel at odds with what we already know about them. Rather than being a story that adds to the appreciation of these characters in the latter stories, it feels forced and out of synch.
Here’s the thing though…these individual stories/plots are actually really damn good and interesting. I was highly engaged in the new rebellion plot they had going on here. Actually, enjoyed it far more than the one we got in the Caladan trilogy. The same could be said for the Navigator/Tleilaxu story. There’s some seriously great moments and intrigue going on that had me interested.
The problem is it just feels like the wrong story for THESE characters in THIS period of time. There really wasn’t anything I can think of that would make it crucial for these events to happen at this point in the timeline. They could have easily set this a few centuries before Dune, using an all new cast of characters, and have it be just fine. Instead, it’s almost as if they came up with a great story, but felt they had to force it onto familiar characters….Which brings another ‘prequelitis’ problem.
While I love that this works as a fully standalone novel, anyone trying to read this without being familiar with their previous prequel novels will be fairly lost. There are too many character mentions and factions used that just “appear” and require previous knowledge/context to fully understand their roles in this story. It’s not a book that casual readers could pick up, and even casual Dune readers would struggle to use this as a re-entry point to the franchise.
There is a really solid, and fun, Dune book within Princess of Dune. It just so happens to get bogged down in a secondary plot that even it chooses to ignore for a majority of the time. Even so, it brings some engaging action moments and political intrigue that will keep you turning the pages.
That said, it’s biggest hang-up will be your own suspension of disbelief. By using these characters in this period of time, it’s almost impossible to enjoy it simply for what it is. With every big event, I found myself taken out of the moment and thinking about how strange it is within the context of the other stories surrounding it. It’s frustrating that it was so enjoyable but hemmed in by the timeframe/characters being used.