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(This is the second book in the Dune series, and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dune. You have been warned!)
It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing. Now married to the old Emperor’s daughter, poor Princess Irulan, Paul’s heart still belongs to his concubine, the Fremen woman Chani, and he is denying Irulan the child that she and the Bene Gesserit want to continue the bloodlines of these two important families. Driven to desperation by his cruelty, poor Irulan has reluctantly joined a conspiracy against him…
In contrast to the first book which took a bit of time to get going, Dune Messiah leaps straight into the plot with a great introductory chapter, giving a brief summary of how the war went after the end of Dune and foreshadowing what’s to come – Paul’s downfall. It’s very definitely a sequel – all the world-building was done in Dune, so anyone trying to read this as a standalone would be totally lost. To my disappointment, Lady Jessica doesn’t put in an appearance, but Alia is now fifteen and plays a major role. Stilgar is still there as Paul’s loyal right-hand man, and Duncan Idaho makes a distinctly creepy return. And the Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam is back in all her Bene Gesserit single-mindedness.
New characters are also introduced – Edric, the fish-like Guild Merchant, floating around in a tank filled with melange gas – the spice drug, and Scytale, the Face Dancer, able to change his appearance and even gender at will. Dune has now become the centre of Paul’s Empire, and the hub of the conspiracies that are going on around him. But what the conspirators don’t know, though the reader does, is that Paul has a plan of his own to bring an end to the jihad – a plan so complex and obscure that I’m still not sure what it was, but whatever it was, it was a bad one!!
The odd thing about this second book is that I really disliked just about everybody (except poor badly-treated Princess Irulan) but loved the book. Paul has turned into some kind of manically depressed dictator – it really seems pointless being able to see lots of possible futures if you always end up picking the most miserable one. I can’t help feeling if he’d got off the spice drug and cleaned up his act, he might have found that as Emperor of Pretty-Much-Everything he could have insisted on peace. Given that the book was written in the ’60s, surely he must have known that there were alternative drugs readily available on any college campus that would have had him happily emblazoning ‘Make Love, Not War’ on his troops’ uniforms? And it was so incredibly mean of him to marry poor Princess Irulan and then to refuse to… well, you know… make a baby with her. No wonder she was slipping contraceptives into Chani’s food and conspiring against Paul – what red-blooded girl wouldn’t in these circumstances? Personally, I reckon they should have ditched Paul and made her Empress! She couldn’t feasibly have done a worse job.
Of course, then she’d have had to deal with Alia who, you will recall from Dune, at the age of four was cheerfully stabbing enemy prisoners to death to recover their water for the tribe. Imagine what a fun adolescent she has turned into! She has now become the religious figurehead for the regime, much to the annoyance of the displaced Bene Gesserit, and is just of the age to fall in love, which she promptly does with the most spectacularly freakish man in the universe. To be fair, she at least seems to have realised that Paul’s gone nuts, which is more than either Chani or Stilgar seem to have spotted, both of them remaining downtrodden sycophants.
There is a sense of fatalism about the book. For all his mental powers, Paul is unable to see a future that will allow him to stop the jihad while protecting the people he most loves. In the end, he must decide whether to put the welfare of his family above the greater good, and Herbert does an excellent job of showing his struggle. To the outside world, he is either Messiah or dictator, or both, and is as hated and feared as he is loved. Conspiracy and mistrust are all around him, each faction with its own reasons for resentment and its own differing aims. And perhaps there are possible futures that are hidden even from Paul.
But the stand-out character in this one is Alia. With powers as great as Paul’s, perhaps greater, she hasn’t yet acquired his fatalism and is ready to fight against what he sees as inevitable. Blessed or cursed while yet in the womb with the knowledge and life experiences of the whole host of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers who came before her, she still has the normal struggles and desires of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The portrayal of the society and women’s subordinate place in it remains as curiously outdated as in the original, but Alia transcends this, becoming a major power player in her own right. Even in her romance she undoubtedly takes the lead. Having a female character of such strength makes the book feel more modern and better balanced than Dune itself.
It’s not often the sequel is better than the original, but in my opinion this one is, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether the high standard of this one will be maintained in the third in the series, Children of Dune.