Every Dune fan's been insatiably curious about the great war against the thinking machines that takes place ten thousand years before the main series. The Butlerian Jihad - a war that saw the birth of the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Zensunni wanderers, the Orange Catholic Bible, and the Imperium itself. A story never told, but only subtly mentioned, tantalizing hints scattered throughout the novels.
Now finally, the great crusade against the machines is being told in it's entirety; here is the story of the birth of the houses Atreides and Harkonnen, and the feud between them which would last millenia. The story of Serena Butler, loved by both, who begin the revolution against mankind's oppressors.
Any series of books covering such a massive storyline is an amibitous undertaking. If that's not enough, the entire Dune universe must be explained with a sense of consistency that only books with such a loyal following as the 'Dune' series can demand. Frank Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson, recently completing their prequel trilogy, have undertaken such a series, and done an admirable job of adding to the rich world of Dune.
The Butlerian Jihad opens as the computer 'evermind' Omnius controls the core worlds of humanity - the synchronized worlds. Free humanity is relegated to a handful of planets, controlled by the League of Nobles. The novel offers a quick background on the machine rise to power: it began as group of 'thinkers' augmented humanity's machine servants with human traits in order to seize power. These tyrants, naming themselves the 'Titans', eventually replaced their bodies with cyborg counterparts, becoming Cymeks. After a century of rule however, their control slipped, and the machines became ascendant. Foremost among these Titans was one who called himself Agamemnon. The remaining Titans are uneasily allied with Omnius, their only goal to enslave humanity.
Next, Salusa Secundus, capital of the free human worlds. We are introduced to Xavier Harkonnen, an eminently capable military officer, who rises quickly through the ranks. Likable and efficient, Harkonnen is vital to human resistance against machine encroachment. He is deeply in love with Serena Butler, daughter of prominent politician in the League of Nobles.
Serena despises humanity's disunity against the machine threat, and the willingness of the League to sacrifice poorer worlds in order to safeguard the richer. Soon, after Geidi Prime falls to the machines, Serena hatches a desperate plan to retake the planet and she slips away in secret, leaving Xavier Harkonnen to follow after and hope he can save her.
Enter yet another protagonist, Vorian Atreides, son of Agamemnon the Tyrant. In a welcome twist, it's odd to see Harkonnen allied with good, and Atreides essentially as evil, to begin with. In another odd note, in the 3rd chapter of 'House Atreides', the authors made reference to House Atreides being descended from the greek King Agamemnon (Atreides). It seems they've tweaked the history a bit to make it more relevant to the plot. Vorian is convinced his father is humankind's greatest hero, and only after speaking to Serena does he begin to doubt the Titan's version of history.
On the blasted planet of Arrakis, the exiled wanderer Selim miraculously rides a sandworm, and is given a glimpse into the future of the planet, and the powers of the spice Melange. Soon, followers flock to him, and he embarks on a course that will change the history of Dune.
The story also covers numerous other characters. There are chapters devoted to Tio Holtzmann, of the famous Holtzmann field, as well as Zufa Cenva, who would nurture the seeds of the Bene Gesserit order. We're also given an insight into Agamemnon, with fascinating details of his rise to power, and subsequent fall. Perhaps most interestingly of all is Erasmus, athinking-machine who is completely amoral and obsessed with humanity. Obsessed to the point of vivisecting children to watch their parents reactions, in an effort to understand the puzzling race.
Although the characters aren't exceptionally well fleshed out, the cast is a marked improvement over the previous prequel trilogy. Vorian can be annoyingly obtuse at times, but in general the characters are better written this time around, and more believable. Erasmus' numerous atrocities are believable because there's a justification for them - his inhumanity. Such justification serves to seperate him from Vladimir Harkonnen in the previous books, who seemed to commit violent acts just so the authors could vilify him. The dialogue is usually simple, as are some character interactions. It can be frustrating, as sometimes in the interest of forwarding the plot, characters can do the stupidest things.
Speaking of which, the plot is one of the strongest points of this book. It offers plenty of action, and revelations as to the origins of the Dune universe, which are fascinating to read. The sections dealing with Erasmus and the Titans are enjoyable, although the entire idea of the Titans is somewhat dubious, and seems poorly executed.
In general, the book is marred by technical faults and flat writing, yet is redeemed by the wealth of information available. It's too hard to pass up the history of a world so meticulously crafted as 'Dune'. They presentation may not be the finest, but all the elements of a great book lurking just beneath the surface of 'The Butlerian Jihad'.