Hellhole, a novel by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson
Review by Paul Weimer
“What is your opinion of this, Mr. Jenet?”
Vincent drew a deep breath, gave his honest response. “I believe something amazing happened to him, General. Beyond that…I can’t say. Will it be worth the expense and effort to dig into the heart of a mountain? That’s something you will have to decide.”
Vincent Jenet speaking with General Adolphus
Kevin J Anderson is one of the most prolific writers out there. Many podcasts I have heard him on in the last couple of years have highlighted the fact that he turns out novels with rapidity quite at odds with some of the more glacially paced writing in the genre. Kevin has even been called a “hack” for this strong work ethic. Back in episode 33 of the Functional Nerds Podcast, Patrick and John interviewed Kevin. Patrick and John also spoke with him as part of the SFsignal podcast back in November.
Even though he has an oeuvre that runs into triple digits, he is perhaps best known as the co-author of numerous novels set in the Dune universe with Brian Herbert, son of Frank Herbert, author of the original Dune novels. That, too, is controversial in some circles, if you read some of the Amazon reviews of their work. And yet, despite the naysayers, Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are successful and internationally bestselling authors.
Now, almost as if in answer to their detractors, Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson have collaborated on a new, old-school space opera universe unconnected to Frank Herbert’s world. Hellhole is the first novel set in their Constellation universe.
Ten years ago, General Tiber Adolphus led a rebellion against the monarchy of the Constellation which failed due to an attack of conscience on the General’s part during the climactic battle. Instead of being killed, he was exiled to the frontier region called the Deep Zone, banished forever to a newly discovered planet named Hallholme in honor of his opponent in that battle. However, still reverberating from an asteroid impact several centuries before its discovery, to call the planet habitable is somewhat charitable. Thus, the planet of his exile is better known by an alternative alliterative name:
Having managed to survive against all odds, General Adolphus’ long game of winning independence against the Constellation is just about ready to go live. But neither the General, nor the monarch, Diadem Michella Duchenet, are prepared for a discovery on Hellhole that will upset everyone’s plans and expectations, a discovery far beyond the few pitiful artifacts in the General’s collection: the first technologically advanced aliens ever discovered in Constellation space…
I’ve seen Hellhole derided as “McDune”. From a 30,000 foot perspective, there are parallels between the universe of the Constellation and the universe of Dune. Both are old school space opera universes. You won’t find any sentient A.I.s here, no technological singularities. Both have a monarchial government with a strong noble class that schemes and holds a large amount of power, power usually directed at other noble families. Both have a faster than light method of travel that derives from a limited resource that is squabbled over by the nobles. Both are future histories of our own universe, there are clear references that the humans of the Constellation are from Earth. Both are painting on a big canvas, with many characters on many planets, on all sides of conflicts.
And that’s where the similarities stop.
The superficial details aside, while Hellhole is not stunningly original in every area, it presents the reader with lots of things to enjoy and digest. Hellhole has sympathetic and explored characters on both sides of the brewing conflict, and suitably exotic aliens that do not feel and act like “rubber headed aliens”. We get the right amount of gorgeous detail on the titular planet. Anderson and Herbert “take you there” with their evocations of a world only several centuries removed from an apocalyptic catastrophe.
Anderson and Herbert also do that aforementioned big canvas thing to honed perfection. Their time together in doing the Dune novels have paid off. Lots of planets, lots of characters, balls in the air across the monarchy of the Constellation going on all at once. While Hellhole and the Diadem’s capital of Sonjeera are the major locations for events in the book, they are only the major ones. Each planet that we have scenes on feels different, a unique milieu nicely formed and evoked. I have not read their Dune collaborations, but this feels and acts like a brand new universe. The details of the aforementioned FTL system, for instance, is original.
On the downside, though, Hellhole is a novel that is all set up, with a relative lack of closure. The book ends on a cliffhanger for the conflict to come, something that I think could have been improved somewhat. Plus, a plot twist toward the end of the book is only seen, without it being addressed just what *that* portends. While I appreciate that this does whet the appetite for the next novel in readers that find favor with the book, on the other hand, it is frustrating for those who want at least a nominal climax for a book in the series.
My other major dispute with the book is the formatting of the chapters. In my opinion, the small chapters with rapid point of view changes amongst characters makes getting to know the characters early on a bit of a chore. Some more identification of where characters were at the beginning of the chapters might have been helpful. Again and again I had to review and remember “What planet are we on, again?”
Is Hellhole the most cutting edge work of science fiction ever dreamed up? No. Is it even trying to be so? Not from this reader’s perspective. It doesn’t need to be, either. Despite some of the textual problems I mentioned above, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Herbert do the most important thing in any book I read. Entertain me. The writers know how to keep pulling the audience along the tow line, hooking them into the plot and characters and setting. Part of me being upset at the lack of closure stems from a kindled desire to see what happens next, with the conflict between the General and the Diadem only getting up to steam at novel’s end.
Oh, and I really appreciated the appendixes that add some detail and add a much needed glossary. After my recent experience with a big idea novel that sorely needed one, finding one here for Hellhole was a godsend. Bravo to the authors for being considerate enough to include it.
Not every SF reader is going to like or want to read Hellhole, as the aforementioned irrational hatred of some of the authors work attests. So who do I think is a good audience for Hellhole? People who have read their Dune novels, of course, should definitely give Hellhole a read. Besides those readers, I think the people who will enjoy this novel the most are people who enjoy old-school space opera. Readers of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire Fall trilogy,or the novels of Jack McDevitt and Michael Flynn for example, will find this is definitely in the same wheelhouse. Also, fans of older school space opera (e.g. The Mote in God’s Eye) might want to take a look at what Herbert and Anderson are creating here.
All of these people, I think, will be well entertained by Hellhole, just as I was.