Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune messiahPower corrupts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(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…

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

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!!

Edric by Mark Zug
Edric by Mark Zug

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.

Poor sweet Princess Irulan
Poor sweet Princess Irulan

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.

Sycophantic concubine Chani
Downtrodden sycophantic concubine Chani

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.

Cute little Alia aged 4
Cute little Alia aged 4

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

40 thoughts on “Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

  1. I think Frank Herbert was a master at creating an entire fictional universe and getting readers to believe in it. I’m glad you thought this one was a good entry into the series. You make an interesting point too about the fact that Dune took some time to get going. I think that’s one thing that must make science fiction a challenge to write. You need to let your readers in on the universe you’ve created; that takes some time. But you do run the risk of going on a bit.

    • Yes, it’s a difficult balance to get right. Dune really did take quite a long time to get going, whereas this one jumped right in. Of course, that means it really couldn’t be read as a standalone – the reader has to have a good understanding of the world before it begins.

  2. Now then, I was certain that I didn’t fancy reading this but your review has changed my mind a little. Although it does sound rather complicated and a little depressing, I am quite intrigued. Dadblamit, I am resolutely not a science fiction fan but keep getting drawn into these buggers. Pah! You always manage to make things sound so tempting, FF.

  3. Oh, huff-hum! You’re undoubtedly biased towards that…Irulan thingy! Reluctantly joined a conspiracy! Yes, about as reluctant as a toad deciding to hop!

    Aha! So, is that what they all look like? What an interest. I think Alia was probably my favorite. But she better get rid of Duncan, I’m thinking. *shudders and shivers*

    I’m quite excited about the third one too. Thanks goodness Paul is gone!

    • I’m not so sure that Paul is gone you know… and I’m just heading into Children of Dune myself. I’m going to review Messiah this month too and like you, Fiction Fan, I loved this book, although I also missed several characters from book 1 and I was a bit upset that we didn’t get to see more planets in the system around Arrakis. Everything just seems to get stuck in the desert when there’s a whole universe out there to explore, or, in Paul’s case, exploit.

      • Oh, I hope you’re wrong! I fear I was quite happy to see the back of him. I’m hoping Alia and the twins will be the leads in the next one.

        Yes, I felt it was very stuck on Dune too. I kept expecting us to at least visit Lady Jessica’s planet, and I missed having a clearcut baddie like the Harkonnens, although all the nebulous conspiracy stuff worked well. But despite all that I really enjoyed it – much faster-moving than Dune.

    • And you’re against her just ‘cos you’re in love with Chani! What should Irulan have done then? Just stayed silent and done what her husband told her??

      Yes, the whole Duncan thing doesn’t get better the longer I think about it… *shudders and shivers too*

      I know! I wonder if Alastair is right though, and he’ll be back. I assumed, based on the title(!), that the next one would be about the horrid little twins…

      • Well…I’m sure she would’ve rebelled. It was Paul’s duty to…save Chani, though. So…he should have thrown her in a snake pit! Where Indiana Jones couldn’t have saved her.

        Alia is going to have problems, I bet!

        Those blasted twins. You’re probably right. Well, if he comes back, he won’t be able to see.

        • I’m glad you at least agree she should have done something! Paul’s the one who caused the problem – he should be the one in the pit! Irulan should have married that nice young Harkonnen boy. And Chani would then have been free for the Professor…

          Ugh! Yes, indeed! Though one has some sympathy for yucketh Duncan too – a couple of years of Alia and he might be wishing they’d just left him dead!

          Perhaps he’ll have metal eyes… *shivers* Poor Chani!

          • Okay, I agree to that. But LadyJ must go in the pit, too. After all…where did she get herself too? The coward! Sting was not a nice Harkonnen boy! Oh no. The professor is heartless. We don’t deal in girls, see.

            *nods* That’s true. Isn’t he like ten times her age, too?

            I do hope Chani comes back!

            • Well, if Paul and Alia were my children I’d probably want to go and live on a different planet too. Oh, the Professor specialises in his collection of girlies!

              Yes, but you said he came back as his younger self.

              From the dead?!?

            • You have a point, I admit. OK, in the pit with her! But Chani must go too, I fear. She should never have tempted Paul away from his dynastic duty…

              Hmm! I think I might have to blancmange her soon… *jealous face*

            • Ah, the fate of women through the ages! But… what’s the alternative? *shakes head sadly*

              Just because I liked her doesn’t mean she is safe from blancmanging…

            • *tries to think of one* Ah, you must mean Darby! Yes, quite right! That’s because men are easily gardoobled by fluttering eyelashes.

              Oh, you’d probably stand in front of her anyway…

  4. Well, I’m not really into science fiction, but you’ve done a fabulous job reviewing this one, FF! And, since I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be reading the series, I had no problem hearing about the spoilers, too. What an interest — a sequel that’s better than the first installment!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 Yes, it’s unusual for a sequel to be better, but I think it’s because he had to spend so much time creating the world in Dune – it took a while for the story to get going, whereas in this one it jumped staright into the plot.

  5. I really enjoyed Frank Herbert’s Dune series, even though I didn’t care so much for the way he sometimes depicted women. Irulan was a favorite character though. I didn’t read his son’s continuation, however.
    Have you seen the miniseries of Dune and Children of Dune? I watch them every year!

    • Yes, the whole society set-up is like a throw-back to the days when women were owned by their men. But I did think the female characters showed a bit more spirit in this one than in the original. I thought I’d read a few of them years ago, but this one didn’t ring many bells and I really can’t think how the next one plays out – looking forward to reading it though.

      No, I haven’t seen either! I shall look out for them… 🙂

  6. I clearly need to have another go at the Dune series. I think I tried them when I was about 10 or 11 and didn’t really get into them. But they sound BRILLIANT! I love a good bit of intrigue!

    • I was older when I read them the first time, maybe late teens or so, but I’ve actually enjoyed them more this time round I think. The world-building in the first one is great, and this one was all conspiracies and nastiness – good stuff!!

  7. Well, I returned from spring break at a bad time (or good time if you’re gazing at my TBR pile). Dune is not for me, so I’ll have to wait until your next review to see if I’m tempted. Ha!

    • Welcome back! Hope you had fun! You will have some catching up time since I’m taking a little bloggie break… but fear not! It’s only so I can stockpile reviews for my return. Meantime, have you read Fallen Land and The Way Things Were yet? 😉

  8. I have challenged myself to read all 4 books nominated for Hugo Award Sci-Fi novel. Sometimes you have to push yourself further into another literary world. Sci-Fi is hard work…but once you are in the ‘ universe ‘ it is an effort worth doing. I am a novice but will start Dune series with the first book. I know how difficult it is to ‘ starting in the middle’. I’m reading The Dark Between the Stars ( 1st book Saga of Shadows series) and K.J. Anderson refers often to the previous series Saga of the Seven Suns. I’m clueless. I have learned a valuable lesson: make sure the author as included a list ‘ terminology of the Imperium’. This makes my reading life a bit easier! Great review and I will save it for the moment I am into book 2. First have to read book 1!

    • Yes, with the Dune series I think you’d definitely need to start with the first one – I don’t think this one would make much sense if you didn’t already understand the world. Dune is great too – a bit of a slow start though as he fills in all the detail and background, but well worth it, I think.

      I have mixed feelings about sci-fi. When it’s done really well, it can be brilliant, but often it’s just not terribly well written, for some reason.

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