Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review
The no-ship looks more badass than its name
***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!***
And here we come, at long last, to my personal favorite of the Dune sequels. Chapterhouse: Dune, Frank Herbert's final entry in the series, is his most well-balanced and consistently entertaining novel, only inferior to the original Dune by virtue of Dune's groundbreaking novelty. Herbert appears to have learned from all five of the previous entries and produced a book that is as enormous as Dune, as unexpected as Dune: Messiah, as polished as Children of Dune, as philosophically dense as God Emperor of Dune, and as exciting as Heretics of Dune. It is, in short, the ultimate Dune novel.
While it contains plenty of familiar plot beats and is primarily a direct sequel to Heretics of Dune, this story feels more like a sci-fi/fantasy spy thriller than anything else, full of intrigue and tension. No doubt a big part of that tension comes from the ever-present threat of the Honored Matres, a gargantuan force of brutal villains from beyond the known universe that is well on its way to eradicating our heroes of the Bene Gesserit. Not since the Harkonnen has there been such a clear baddie in the Dune universe, and yet Herbert subverts expectations by the end by having the Bene Gesserit attempt to incorporate them as allies against an even larger, unseen threat.
Herbert holds this tension throughout the novel, however, constantly reminding the reader that, at any moment, the Honored Matres might find the Bene Gesserit world of Chapterhouse and rain genocidal fury upon the last remaining vestiges of the Old Empire. This frees him up to spend several pages espousing political philosophy, which is much clearer here than the too-clever-by-half ramblings of the God Emperor a couple of books earlier. These philosophical meanderings don't feel as ponderous or superfluous as they have in the past, either, as the characters are, by virtue of their situation, always on the knife-edge of desperation, clutching at their beliefs in a high-stakes test of faith that will either end with victory or extinction. While the God Emperor deals with similar stakes in his story, consequences are always in the distant future rather than knocking on the doorstep.
I'll never complain about pulpy covers
Also, there are always things happening in Chapterhouse: Dune, with multiple characters all working at cross-purposes to one another, with varying goals, hopes, and expectations, even when they're ostensibly on the same side of the main conflict. The threat of brutal death is constantly reinforced by scenes of Honored Matre torture, while the struggles of the heroes on Chapterhouse take several unexpected turns that are as dramatic as they are exciting. The book doesn't have quite as many action scenes as the previous novel, but it manages to elevate even the most mundane scenes with that visceral tension Chapterhouse: Dune does so well.
This is why it's a page-turner. Despite being roughly the same length as most of the Dune novels (around 150,000 words), it feels much shorter. However, it doesn't fall into the traps of Heretics of Dune; Chapterhouse: Dune doesn't cut away from the climax or contain too much in the way of Herbert's uncomfortably-written sex scenes. (There is one important sex scene involving a ten-year-old, but let's just try to ignore that for the purposes of this review.)
It also manages to have a fairly unambiguous point to it. Unlike the first four Dune novels, this isn't quite as concerned with exploring the power dynamic as it is in exploring people. As I mentioned above, every character is portrayed as having different goals and aspirations, but by the end, they are forced to work together, driven to understand each other either by the stakes themselves or through the assistance of Bene Gesserit mind-melding powers. Herbert manages to keep Mother Superior Odrade's ultimate plan to bring the Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres together under wraps for the majority of the novel, but by the time it is revealed, it is clear what Herbert is getting at here.
The spider-queen is subtle
It's not so much about cooperation as it is evolution, how the only way forward is through mutual change. Herbert is finding a new path, a new way out of the centuries-long escalation of power that has brought humanity to the Scattering, an infinitely unknowable status quo. That escalation continues along semi-predictable lines for the most part, but Herbert shows how, through a potent combination of discipline, liberty, and intelligence (as personified by the Bene Gesserit themselves), humanity is capable of maturing together. He does it through a kick-ass story that is never boring, either.
Frank Herbert's Dune series, as a whole, deserves its reputation as one of science-fiction's greatest treasures. It is certainly dense and enigmatic, but it is incredibly well-written and well-realized. Frank unfortunately died before he could complete his seventh in the story, but his son, Brian Herbert, took up the mantle and, with the help of Kevin J. Anderson and a pile of Frank's notes, wrote not only a pair of prequel trilogies but also a two-part conclusion to the main storyline. I won't be covering those here--I haven't read them--but maybe if my hype for Denis Villeneuve's upcoming film compels me, I might revisit Dune by the end of the year.
In the meantime, let me know what you think. If you've read all six of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, how would you rank them? From a purely personal preference standpoint, for me it would have to go like this: (6) Dune Messiah; (5) God Emperor of Dune; (4) Heretics of Dune; (3) Children of Dune; (2) Chapterhouse: Dune; and of course, (1) Dune.
-e. magill 2/6/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: