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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review

Dune Messiah
I absolutely love this cover

When the first sequel to Frank Herbert's Dune was released, it was met with mixed reactions from expectant fans. Dune Messiah picks up the story of Emperor Paul Atreides twelve years after his ascension to the throne, after his jihad has already been unleashed upon an unsuspecting galaxy, resulting in the deaths of trillions. Given that the first book seemed to imply very heavily that Paul would find a way to avoid this cataclysmic holy war and that many fans considered Paul to be a heroic figure incapable of fault, this was something of a shock to a lot of people. It's certainly a bitter pill to swallow, but it's not the biggest problem with Herbert's sequel.

Thematically, the story does make sense, and it falls perfectly in line with the foreshadowing of the previous novel. This is a story of power and its consequences, and Paul isn't trying to avoid the jihad so much as chart the best possible course through a future filled with far worse alternatives (kind of like Hari Seldon in a completely different sci-fi epic about prescience). It's also a bridging story that sets the stage for the third novel in the series, Children of Dune, which I'll discuss later. Looked at from that perspective, this story isn't subverting itself; it's exactly what it needs to be.

However, the writing, at least for the first half of the novel, is where things slide from the excellence of Herbert's original work. Information is delivered in an even more tangential way than before, and there are several chapters full of tiresome, needlessly expository dialogue that is trying much too hard to be clever. It almost feels like Herbert got a little too confident after Dune, where similar bits of dialogue are more spread out across the narrative and less obtuse. Indeed, everything leading up to the story's major turning point--the stone burner explosion--could be cut out and summarized in a single chapter.

Dune Messiah
Then again, I always have room in my heart for pulp

That's because virtually nothing happens for the majority of the story. Characters are introduced, a glacial conspiracy is brought up and then relegated to the background, a mysterious body is found and then discarded by the plot relatively quickly, and Paul does some pensive staring into the figurative middle distance. Other than that, it's just a lot of talking, with characters trying to best each other in mind-numbing linguistic combat that isn't nearly as tense or entertaining as I suspect Herbert thought when he wrote it.

Thankfully, when the plot finally picks up and things start actually happening, the book leaps back up to the previous book's standards. Judged by the final third or so alone, Dune Messiah is as good as Dune in terms of plot, surprise, pacing, characterization, world-building, and satisfaction. The climax is especially notable for being a whirlwind of events that manages to tie together all the various hanging plot threads into a tapestry that is really quite beautiful.

I suspect a significant portion of Herbert's audience dropped off before that revelation, however, and to this day, Dune Messiah is considered by most fans as little more than a prelude to its successor, Children of Dune. For the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries adaptation of the first three books, Dune Messiah makes up simply the first episode of the Children of Dune second series, which is a testament to how little story is actually being told here.

Dune Messiah
Giant head shrines are pretty neat too, I guess

It does improve with repeated readings, as this is a book where the conclusion greatly informs everything that precedes it, as you'd probably expect from a series of novels in which multiple characters can peer into the future. Still, even on a second reading, the long dialogue chapters are straight-up boring; there's just no way around it. Where the first Dune is filled with intrigue and excitement, even when it's only a couple of characters talking to each other, the first sequel is bloated and vague. This is ironic, given how short Dune Messiah is in comparison.

As a book on its own merits, Dune Messiah isn't terrible by any means, but it doesn't stand alone very well. As a follow-up to the incredible Dune, it's also a bit disappointing, lacking much of the magic that made the original work. However, as a single episode in a much grander series, Dune Messiah does its job and ends with a bang. It's an essential part of the bigger picture, but it is so busy laying the groundwork for other stories that it doesn't have enough of a story of its own to fill its pages.

I will be continuing my Dune reviews, but not until January. The next two weeks are being dedicated to my end-of-year wrap-up articles, where I review all the movies I've seen and list off a bunch of personal/political stuff that I've learned over the course of the year. I apologize for the wait--my planning skills are a bit lacking sometimes--so until next time, I hope you enjoy your holiday season however you choose to celebrate/endure it.

-e. magill 12/19/2019

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  • Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Dune (1984) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
  • Frank Herbert's Dune (2000) - TV Review
  • Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Children of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Frank Herbert's Children of Dune (2003) - TV Review
  • God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
  • Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review

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