Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson bring us 'The Machine Crusade', the second entry in the 'Legends of Dune' series which relates events tens of thousands of years prior to the original series. The sequel to 'The Butlerian Jihad' continues the story of mankinds long fight against the thinking machines.
After free humanity's atomic assault on Earth, the stronghold of the machines, the League has been unable to grasp any real victories. Decades have passed and they remain at a stalemate with their enemies. The machines attack worlds here and there and the humans do the same. Neither are able to realize any tangible gains.
Xavier Harkonnen is Primero of the League forces, and is becoming increasingly frustrated with the stalemate. He's growing older and despairs of every seeing a humans victory against the machines. In this novel, his role has been significantly reduced and he serves only as a bit player. His close friend, Vorian Atreidies, remains youthful - courtesy of his anti-aging treatments at the hands of his Titan father, Agamemmnon. He also chafes at the stagnant conflict, but has decided to fight the machines with incredibly unique and uncounterable tactics. These include fake ships (!), and infecting the machines with a virus (!!). Vorian also journeys to the planet of Caladan, and we see the shaping of events that will establish house Atreides for millenia to come.
Serena Butler herself (she of the Jihad) has become absolutely two dimensional. For the vast majority of the novel she ceases to be anything more than a reference. She serves as the figurehead of the Jihad, and Hebert and Anderson have essentially written her out of the book. After finally managing to create believable characters in 'The Butlerian Jihad', the authors have nullified their own work in the second novel. Harkonnen and Butler are no longer main characters, and the focus has shifted to a series of shallow characters too numerous to count.
The main player in this book is probably Iblis Ginjo, the real power behind the Jihad. He's a cardboard character who's desperate for power, and will manipulate anyone and go to any length to keep it. As the authors demonstrated in both the previous novel and the prequel trilogy, they are unable to write an antagonist with even a hint of depth. As usual, by the end of the story Ginjo has been characterized in stark blacks; Ginjo's development is limited to his character doing more and more evil stuff as the novel progresses.
Other storylines include lengthy musings of Zensunni slaves on Poritrin, Selim Wormrider and his visions on Arrakis, a wholly pointless story concerning the mercenaries of Ginaz, the individualistic robot Erasmus cutting people apart while arguing with Omnius (and raising a child in a 'twist' worthy of a Fox sitcom), the human/machine Titans plan a rebellion against the aforementioned Omnius, a narrative about Zufa Cenva and her flowering sisterhood of sorceresses, and Norma Cenva's pursuit of space-folding technology and true love. Now remember, these aren't all the plot elements, just characters with chapters devoted to them. There are far too many disparate threads here, leading to 'The Machine Crusade' becoming a bloated book that can't bear its own weight for the duration. Ostensibly these serve to germinate every conceivable aspect of the 'Dune' series, but it's far too much to be contained in one novel. Great swathes of this book should have been removed, with more content dedicated to the actual characters instead of just developing the mythos of the 'Dune' universe. Although the latter is greatly appreciated, the actual story takes a heavy hit and loses any sense of cohesion. Concerning the war with the machines, very little actually happens - and when it does it's transparent and idiotically simple.
On the plus side, the history of familiar 'Dune' institions are interesting, even if they don't all belong in one volume. There's some enjoyable (if wholly predictable) passages about the Tleilaxu, and a few well scripted action scenes. Although the technical writing is hardly of the highest quality, no one can doubt the authors' capable imaginations when it comes to expanding the 'Dune' universe. The large portions of the novel devoted to the machines and their allies are, for the most part, enjoyable to read. Interestingly the machines actually aren't all that obsessed with continuing the war, which leads to the question of the title. 'The Machine Crusade' doesn't really seem to mean anything, as a title, or as a book in general.
In the end, 'The Machine Crusade' reads as an interesting novel on the roots of the hallowed 'Dune' mythos, but the story it tells is truncated and far less interesting. Hebert and Anderson have lost much of the momentum they gained with 'The Butlerian Jihad', and fans can only hope the forthcoming 'Battle of Corrin' is a juggernaut of a novel. At this point, it could go either way.