Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2014
The Brian Herbert-Kevin J. Anderson Dune books are quite polarizing. After having read the second book in this series, I find some of the criticism valid. But it's also clear that the authors did try to flesh out the Dune universe in a way that would satisfy Frank Herbert. They're clearly not quite as good with the art of writing, but the books aren't trash.
Of the criticisms I've seen, the one that most holds up is repetition and lack of subtlety in the writing. I'm not sure if this is because the book had two authors, but the book repeats itself as if worrying readers will forget. In House Harkonnen, I found the biggest problem to be simplistic characterization. It's as if the authors feel the need to place characters in a "good guy", "bad guy" box, something Frank Herbert probably would never have done. For example, Abulurd Rabban, Baron Harkonnen's brother, is portrayed as nearly angelic because the book needs to use him as a foil to the Baron. This guy comes across as even more saintly than Duke Leto! I love the idea of showing some benevolent Harkonnens, but it would have worked better to have created nuances in the characters that display multifaceted character traits rather than just creating "good" and "bad" Harkonnens.
This book - like the other House books - doesn't have a particularly strong story. I get the sees that the House books were written more to provide backstory for the main characters in Frank Herbert's Dune than to tell its own unique story. This is both good and bad. I'm glad the books don't try to overshadow the story of Dune. Dune clearly represents the climax of a struggle, and so having a major story set just decades before might have detracted from its power. As the middle book, this is particularly problematic because we're past introductions (House Atreides) but not yet at the climax (House Corrino).
That said, if you take the book as general backstory to Dune, it actually works somewhat well (small contradictions aside). Unlike the House Atreides book, which only marginally dealt with the Atreides family, House Harkonnen does provide a more focused look at the Harkonnens and what makes them tick. I do like the contrast between Rabban and the Baron - again, not necessarily subtle, but nevertheless it works for the characters.
Overall, if you read this book, set your expectations. It's not great literature, not even at the level of Frank Herbert's latter Dune novels. But if you want more Dune and you're willing to suspend disbelief, House Harkonnen can be a fun read. Don't expect any great philosophical insights or plot twists. I do think it's safe to expect that the books will make the Dune universe feel much larger and more complicated than what we got in the original novels.