Reviewed in the United States on August 13, 2020
Dune, at the time of writing this, is my favorite book ever. So I decided to read the entire Dune series, using in-universe chronology. This is the earliest novel in the Dune timeline, only predated by the "Hunting Harkonnens" short story.
This prequel, supposedly based on the late Frank Herbert's notes, tells the story of the Butlerian Jihad, the ancient war against the thinking machines. Where Dune described this uprising as more of a philosophical movement, more about people rejecting automation and taking on their own burdens to achieve true freedom. This prequel depicts the jihad as a simple war between free humans and the evil machine empire ala Skynet. Kevin J Anderson is largely known for writing Star Wars books, so it's no wonder this story got boiled down to such a simple conflict.
This reflects an overall lack of depth in the book. This is not the philosophical and thematic work that Dune is, and is instead a work of simple "genre fiction." Not a fan of the term personally, but it brings to mind all the right associations to describe this book. But even if we can accept that The Butlerian Jihad is simply an escapist dime-novel, I would argue it is subpar on those merits as well.
The plot is glacially slow, even for such a light read, and disjointed. Unlike Dune, which focused on Paul Atreides and only occasionally jumped to other perspectives, Jihad is a sprawling narrative. We follow Xavier, Vorian, Erasmus, Serena, Selim, Nora, and more, and we're already at six POV characters! These characters are often separated by literal cosmic distances and you never see the neat interweaving of narratives that sort of format promises. Some of these characters never meet, and only two are present for the events at the climax. Which is less a climax, and more of a sequel bait. "We won the battle, now the war begins" type of ending. Just like Dune, chapters are short, so we barely spend time with them before moving elsewhere for long stretches. It makes it hard to connect.
Also, this book pulls the mistake many prequels do, which is over explaining how things from the original came to be. Holtzman shields, FTL, the beginnings of Spice trade, the origins of Wormriding, the Bene Gesserit, the Mentats. It's silly, and feels like box ticking. Instead of writing an interesting story, the book obsessively keeps saying "look! It's that thing from Dune!" Over and over.
The prose is simplistic and even on occasion clumsy and awkward but mostly functional. Honestly, a couple lines were straight up baffling and even unintentionally funny. The worst thing is easily the cymeks. These are immortal human brains in jars that pilot robot bodies to fight the humans. It's as silly as it sounds, and yes, they are literally brains in jars, canisters, whatever. Their dialogue is constantly talking about their superiority, and how they must crush the rebellious and puny humans. Far from the intelligent, scheming villains of Dune. Characters in general are one note and never do anything surprising or have interesting facets that are discovered. If you've read their first appearance, you already have a full understanding of them, there is no depth.
The book is a buildup to a battle which covers mere pages, only to end with a promise for the Butlerian Jihad in the next book. It's full of characters we don't care about going through the motions to set up the pieces for the story we actually care about. If you're looking for a fun sci-fi adventure, avoid this pondering, workmanlike product. I can only recommend this to absolutely hardcore Dune fans who must see everything in the franchise out of a kind of morbid curiosity like me. There are occasional moments of cool worldbuilding or sci-fi concepts, but these exist only due to the genius of Frank Herbert. This book has no soul.