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In the epic of Dune, the hero of the story might appear to be Paul Atreides, but the most powerful character in the original Frank Herbert novel is actually his mother, Lady Jessica. Although not formally married to Paul’s father Duke Leto, Jessica belongs to the order of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal group of telepathic pseudo-witches, who are pretty much Dune’s version of the Jedi. In the backstory of Dune, Jessica has angered her Bene Gesserit elders by disrupting their complex breeding program. Instead of having a daughter with Duke Leto — as instructed — Jessica had a son. (he Bene Gesserit can choose the gender of their babies.) In the first chapter of the original Dune, the Bene Gesserit are annoyed with Jessica for the existence of Paul, but it’s also a given that they’re just going to have to live with it.
When Dune begins, this matter has more or less been settled, but how? Dune: The Lady of Caladan, a new prequel novel in the Dune series, answers that question and then some. The latest in a long line of Dune prequel and sequel novels from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, The Lady of Caladan tells the story of Jessica’s tribulations and adventures in the year before the original book begins. And, in doing so, The Lady of Caladan enriches the entire saga. If, after re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, or, in anticipation of the new film, you want to get a greater sense of Lady Jessica, this book delivers. Here’s how The Lady of Caladan fits into the Dune timeline, and why it’s a fantastic way of reframing the larger story.
When the original Dune begins, the Atreides family has already decided to move to Arrakis (the desert planet where the book is set) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is on Caladan, testing young Paul’s skills with the gom jabbar. For such a lengthy novel, the classic Dune is remarkable insofar as it begins speedily, forcing the reader to digest the backstory gradually, as the enthralling plot takes hold. And yet, for longtime fans, there’s something a little bit depressing about having to leave the lush oceanic planet of Caladan so quickly. The novel Dune — and its various film adaptations — keeps the action firmly focused on everything that’s happening on Arrakis because that’s where the spice is, and that’s where House Atreides has to move. But the galaxy of Dune is, of course, much bigger than the planet itself. This universe and its characters are, arguably, richer than the original novel even allows.
And it’s on this point — the notion of scope in the Dune universe — where The Lady of Caladan is so fantastic. Right away, we get to see Jessica on the planet Wallach IX, the Bene Gesserit stronghold where she was raised. The planet itself is where much of the Bene Gesserit’s plans were hatched, so, visiting it so close to the classic Dune time period is thrilling, in no small part because the Bene Gesserit are so terrifying. Herbert’s original novel always gives you the sense that Jessica is torn regarding her Bene Gesserit background. On the one hand, Jessica and Paul owe some of their awesome powers to the Bene Gesserit, and yet, in The Lady of Caladan, it’s made very clear how much Jessica resents having her life taken from her by the Sisterhood. But, like the original novel that inspired it, The Lady of Caladan kicks-off not with endless world-building, but with a gripping mystery.
One of the Bene Gesserit sisters has gone mad, and this particular person is known as “the Kwisatz Mother,” a seer of enormous power who has been killing members of the order with her mind. In Star Wars, the notion of using verbal commands to get somebody to do something (i.e. “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”) is always a little bit funny. But, the Dune equivalent, “the voice,” is much more hardcore. And, in the opening scenes involving the Bene Gesserit in this new book, you see why. Although more of the lush planet of Caladan is featured in this book than in its progenitor, the story doesn’t want you to get comfortable. Jessica’s adventure begins on Wallach IX, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
And, she’s not the only character zipping around the galaxy in this novel. We also follow Duke Leto as he tries to buoy the reputation of House Atreides among his peers within the complicated political system known as Landsraad. While Jessica is trying to save the universe, Leto, in this book, is doing the Dune version of internet dating. In the original book, Leto is unmarried, but loyal to Jessica. However, in The Lady of Caladan, we see that Leto is nervous about not being married to someone from one of the other Great Houses, and so we find him crisscrossing the galaxy, kind of looking around. It may sound a bit strange, but having Leto and Jessica separated for the majority of the novel is actually brilliant. By the time Dune happens, we know that Leto and Jessica are totally devoted to each other, even though they are not technically married. This is partly because, politically, they each have more freedom in this arrangement. But again, figuring out how Jessica and Leto got to that decision is fascinating.
Even Paul gets a small part of the spotlight in The Lady of Caladan. Because his parents have left Caladan, we get to see what Paul was like as a 14-year-old, slightly flippant ruler. This serves to deepen the relationships Paul has with all of his beloved teachers: Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat. While some foreshadowing about Dr. Yueh happens in these parts of the book, The Lady of Caladan is not just all set-up for Dune. It is very much its own novel, and if you’ve never read the original novel, there’s 100 percent an argument to be made for reading this first. These are the same characters from Dune, but seen at a different time, making them feel larger and more dimensional than ever. The conflicts in The Lady of Caladan are more numerous and disparate than in Dune, and the pacing is measured and exciting. Frank Herbert proved with his original book that space politics don’t have to be boring, but in The Lady of Caladan, the political scheming is downright electrifying.
But, most of all, the novel remains Jessica’s story, and it explores the secrets she was forced to keep not just before Dune, but afterwards, too. As played by Rebecca Ferguson in the new film, Lady Jessica is a force to be reckoned with, and an endlessly complex and pivotal character. With The Lady of Caladan, she finally gets the epic that she deserves.