“Brilliant…it is all that Dune was, and maybe a little more.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Frank Herbert’s Dune series is widely regarded as some of the best science fiction ever written, and it’s not hard to see why. The series revolves around a desolate, sun scorched planet named Arrakis, where events take place that will have lasting consequences for the entire galaxy. The first book, simply titled Dune, introduces us to a futuristic sci-fi galaxy where noble houses vie for power, danger is around every corner, and an incredibly rare spice known as Melange gives consumers supernatural abilities, but at a terrible cost.
Set 12 years after the end of the first novel, the second book, Dune Messiah, once again follows the original book’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, who now rules over billions of people as Emperor. If the original book served as the tale of Paul’s rise to power, then Dune Messiah follows Paul as he struggles to keep his empire from tearing itself apart, whilst also grappling with his overwhelming powers of prescience. Paul may no longer have to physically fight his enemies, but there are many powerful entities that wish to see him usurped from his throne, and he must learn to navigate the courts as he tries to distinguish friend from foe and prevent his fanatical followers from causing further destruction.
Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Rowling’s Harry Potter, the world, or rather, universe, Herbert has created is incredibly rich in its lore and history. Reading Dune last year, I got the feeling I was merely scratching the surface of a sci-fi epic who’s depths were too vast to fully appreciate the first time around. Herbert’s world building is first rate and beginning the second book earlier this month made me feel as though I were returning to a land I’d visited before.
As mentioned earlier, the original Dune is a classic hero’s tale which follows the young Paul Atreides as he and his family arrive on the barren planet Arrakis. Tragedy strikes, and Paul is forced to endure and survive as he adapts to his harsh new world and seeks revenge on the rival houses who plotted his family’s downfall. The book ends with Paul’s triumph and sees him established as the Emperor of all. This is usually where most epic tales end but, when it comes to Dune, it’s only the beginning. The second book examines what happens after the hero has won the day and how there’s really no such thing as a happy ending.
Over a decade after the events of the first book, Paul remains in power, but his empire is tearing itself apart. His fanatic followers, who see him as a God, have launched a jihad that has killed billions across the galaxy and brought suffering to countless more. Paul’s powers of gazing into the future are becoming an increasing strain as he attempts to navigate a path that will lead to peace. Meanwhile, powerful factions work together in an effort to bring his reign to an end. It’s not looking good for Paul who, was once a plucky teenager who could always overcome the odds, but is now a troubled man under enormous pressure that threatens to break him.
Upon reading up on reviews of Dune Messiah, I found that some criticised the book for being much bleaker in its tone than the original. Sure, the first Dune featured plenty of danger for our characters, but there were also moments of triumph. It’s true that Dune Messiah is certainly a more sombre tale than its predecessor, but I don’t think that affects the overall quality of the book itself. The tone may have changed, but I think that’s very intentional.
Dune, despite being far more detailed than most fiction at the time, still followed the tried and true trope of a heroes’ journey. Most authors would leave it at that, but not Frank Herbert. Herbert decided to continue his story and begin deconstructing the hero he’d built up in the first book. It’s easy to see why some may be upset to see the triumphant hero of the last book get picked apart and cross examined, but it seems to me that that’s the message Herbert is trying to get across in Dune Messiah. Even the greatest heroes, even ones as powerful as Paul, are still merely human, and are therefore subject to the same flaws and doubts that plague us ordinary folk, sometimes even more so. If the first book was about lifting Paul up into the heavens, then Dune Messiah is about bringing him back down to Earth.
Frankly, I think it would be a disservice for Herbert to continue to paint Paul as an unconquerable hero, that’s not what the series is about. It may be a sci-fi series set way into the future, but the themes and messages are ones that are very relevant to real life and much of the importance of the series would lost were it to sink into tired old tropes where good always wins and the hero always saves the day. Dune isn’t about shying away from harsh realities, and I’m glad that Messiah doesn’t, even if it means watching our heroes suffer.
If there’s one criticism I do have of the book, it’s that it is much shorter than the last instalment. Don’t get me wrong, I side with Shakespeare when it comes to brevity, and I certainly have no time for novels that waffle on pointlessly but, given the depth of Herbert’s world, I think it may have helped the reader had he gone into a little more detail when it comes to certain plot points and factions. The were a few times where I found myself having to Google parts of the book to fully appreciate what was going on. No doubt seasoned veterans of the series might scoff at my moments of misunderstanding, but I believe it important for epic books like these to also be clear for newcomers such as myself. I’m not saying Herbert should’ve made the overall series more broad, certainly not, but I felt there were a few occasions where a bit more info wouldn’t have gone amiss.
As I did with the first book, I quickly found myself being sucked into the world of Dune Messiah and would stay awake far too late at night reading just one more chapter. The story twists and turns nicely and I never felt as though I could predict what was coming next. The book’s ending perfectly sets up the third book in the series and I find myself needing to know what happens next, far more so than I did when I finished Dune, which wraps up quite neatly. I thoroughly enjoyed Dune Messiah and, in my opinion, Arrakis is well worth a second visit.
Added 16th August 2018