Frank Herbert – Dune Messiah (1969) Review

Dune messiah

  • Series: Dune (book 2)
  • My rating: 8.5/10

For all of Dune’s accomplishments, it remains a very basic Campbellian Hero’s Journey, and as such it feels like Frank Herbert never had any sequel in mind when he wrote it. Young Paul Atreides loses his home, learns powers in the desert and then returns, victoriously, to free his people and take the Emperor’s throne. Such hero journeys always end at the moment of triumph, when the hero bestows the boons of his transformation on the world he originally came from, and we hardly ever imagine what comes after.

In Dune Messiah, a short novel written a few years after Dune, Herbert has some ideas what comes after, and he wants to undermine some rose-colored illusions we might be harboring from Dune. Dune Messiah is heavy and ponderous; filled with a sense of impending doom. Paul is an emperor of terrible power. His religious armies have conquered the known universe and he has the power of prophecy. His and Alia’s lives inevitably restricted by the demands of empire, Paul feels rising melancholy and doubt about his course. He is a tragic figure, as from a Shakespearean play.

Yet his enemies are still to be feared. Herbert takes this opportunity to greatly expand Dune’s universe. He introduces a new faction: the Bene Tleilax, a guilt of genetic manipulators. Together with the Bene Gesserit and the Space Guild they plot Paul’s downfall. Herbert effectively introduces the Tleilax power in a secret meeting. They wisely know that Paul can only be conquered from the inside, and seek to play on his vulnerabilities, such as his ongoing search for moral clarity. With the Tleilax come the Face Dancers and the Gholas, and we finally see Guild Steersmen up close.

And the Bene Tleilax made a smart assessment. Paul is an unwilling prophet; someone who stands apart from the mythological figurehead of a religious war that his Fremen armies made him into. Even stepping aside from this path in life will not extinguish that figurehead. Maybe… he would even want to be defamed, to free him from this path and not have any more death resting on his shoulders.

Dune Messiah offers a lot of depth and world-building but little in actual story. What happened since the events of Dune comes to us through whatever is mentioned in conversations where people try to outmanoeuvre each other in mindreading and hidden goals. These conversations are just as strong as they were in Dune, and Herbert offers some striking new visual images with them, like the Guildsmen and Paul’s palace. Some of these scenes I find repeated in modern works: the image of Paul walking through life while seeing his own future in visions, down to the moment of him remembering each situation happening with a finality, something similar happened in R. Scott Bakker’s The White-Luck Warrior (2011).

(In fact, for those looking for similar series to Dune, R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series feels so inspired by Dune that it is a modern crossbreed between it and Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings. Bakker’s series has the same focus on philosophy and religion, featuring the Bene Gesserit and Mentats in the form of the Dunyain, and Paul Atreides is a clear inspiration behind the Messiah/Emperor Anasurimbor Kellhus.)

While these elements definitely make the novel worth reading, it is simply a slimmer story and does not feel like a full sequel in scope. It is, however, a finely crafted, chiseled novel, in which everything that was straightforward in Dune is now complex. There are no easy answers and every future and every choice that lays before Paul creates new consequences. All the characters are fully realized adults, with complex emotional lives. The way Herbert sets up the plot against Paul, who can see the future, is masterfully done. Dune Messiah may be different, but it sure is impressive in its own way.

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6 Responses to Frank Herbert – Dune Messiah (1969) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    See, this is why I’ve gotten sucked into reading the whole series every time I re-read Dune. I “should” know better and just leave Dune by itself. But no….., I have to keep on reading and then I lament when I get to the later books and wonder why I continued 😀

    Do you think Herbert’s way of describing “big events” through the conversations of others instead of actually writing about the Big Event is because he didn’t feel comfortable writing it or because he wanted to write in a different way? I really noticed that tendency in Heretics and Chapterhouse and honestly, it started to bug me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Herbert is much more interested in personalities and conversations, and especially in individuals embroiled in politics and religion, than writing about action and so on. In these two Dune books that’ve just read, Herbert really wants to explore Paul Atreides as a character, and the plot is kept relatively minimal. It hasn’t started to bug me yet, because Herbert seems good at what he does.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. pete says:

    I didn’t appreciate Dune Messiah for what it was, when I read it several years ago. Herbert’s efforts to subvert the Hero Story, which worked so well to make a tremendously complex novel like Dune a bestseller, became easier to appreciate after I read <Children of Dune and made a real effort into understanding its philosophical themes. He reimagined the Hero myth again in his mainstream novel Soul Catcher, which brought him both literary recognition and outrage.

    Herbert’s biography told me that he had planned the first three Dune books to be a single epic novel, and the author said as much in a 1983 taped interview (published under the “Waldentapes” label, with David Lynch, no less). I’ll have to give DM another go, someday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m reading Children of Dune right now for the first time. So far, I think it is a great addition to the saga, and in hindsight Dune Messiah feels like a bridging novel between the events of Dune and CoD. I guess Dune Messiah and Children of Dune also could have been pasted together as a single big sequel to Dune.


  3. Pingback: Frank Herbert – Children of Dune (1976) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

  4. Pingback: Frank Herbert – Dune (1965) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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