In many ways, Dune Messiah feels like a sequel that has fallen into the most obvious and deadly of traps: a drearily self-serious and labored exercise in trying to match — if not exceed — the brilliance of a predecessor already regarded worldwide as a seminal masterpiece of its genre. On the one hand, it cannot be denied that Frank Herbert has continued to work with utmost dedication, in the four years between Dune and this book, on enhancing and expanding his creation both in breadth and depth. On the other, his writing in Dune Messiah quite simply sucks all the air out of the room.
Whereas Dune dazzled in its range, offering everything from adventure spectacle to commentary on world affairs to family drama, Dune Messiah replaces much of the original's stirring narrative with exposition, as Paul Muad'Dib attempts to fend off a conspiracy against him and hold on to what little is meaningful to him personally in a universe ravaged by war in his name. Having raised Paul Atreides to the greatest heights possible, Herbert now proceeds to tear him down. That ought to be immensely powerful stuff, tragedy on a Shakespearean scale at least. The real tragedy is in how muted this story's impact is.
Paul, so driven and vigorous a leader in Dune, here spends much of the story in a kind of self-pitying existential sulk. Twelve years have elapsed since Dune ended with Paul's defeat of the Harkonnens and his ascension to the throne of the empire, after deposing Shaddam IV and entering into a for-politics-only marriage to the Princess Irulan. Now, after more than a decade, the movement Paul began on Arrakis has taken on a life of its own, and full-blown jihad has spread throughout the galaxy. Paul has been elevated to deific status by his Fremen cohorts. But for most of them, the jihad was seen more as a path to adventure and wealth, and disillusionment has set in.
Among all of Paul's old enemies — the Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Landsraad noble families — plots against him grow. Paul, with his prescient powers, sees much of it unfolding. But for much of the book, you don't really get a handle on Paul's character. He remains determined to hold onto his power and thwart the desires of such foes as the CHOAM company to undermine his monarchy with a constitution. But he has almost none of the passion, the sense of mission, he had in Dune. The jihad that raged in his name was one of the many future possibilities his prescient powers foresaw that he feared the most. Now that it's come to pass, Paul sometimes seems indifferent to fate, even as he goes through the motions of putting it off. Perhaps we are meant to see this as the defining factor in Paul's unfolding personal tragedy. But overall, the effect is to throw up a wall between us and Paul.
Dune Messiah is much shorter than Dune, at times brisker. But its narrative often meanders in a way Dune's never did. The actors in the conspiracy are at cross-purposes in many ways, which will help Paul outmaneuver them. Yet at times, it's hard to make sense of their actions. The most clear motivations come from the Bene Gesserit, who are determined to recover the genetic lines lost to their selective breeding program when Paul, after becoming the Kwisatz Haderach, immediately became their enemy and took the Fremen girl Chani as his true wife. Paul tries to cut a deal with them (mostly to save Chani's life, as she's in the Bene Gesserit's crosshairs) by which he will agree to bear a child with Irulan, herself a Bene Gesserit, but only through artificial insemination, and the child will not be named heir to the throne. Meanwhile, among the conspirators are another new order, the Bene Tleilax, who have some pretty incredible talents of their own. Their plan involves a being called a ghola, named Hayt, who is in fact the revived Duncan Idaho, killed defending Paul in Dune. There is also the Tleilaxu "Face Dancer" named Scytale, who can alter his appearance to that of anyone, and intends to infiltrate Paul's household in that way.
There are just heaps and heaps of plot here, but for too much of the book, the telling is simply dull. It would be nice to know a bit more about how the universe changed in the intervening twelve years. How did the Bene Tleilax arise, let alone develop the skills to raise the dead and create Face Dancers? (Missing pieces like this led to the publication in 2008 of Paul of Dune, which filled the gap between books.) Scytale at one point even mentions, as casually as you might mention having baked a cake, that the Bene Tleilax have bred their own Kwisatz Haderach! But nothing is made of this in the story.
Mostly the problem with Dune Messiah is that we have a much weaker connection to the characters (the only really interesting people here are Paul's sister, the now-teenage Alia, and the Hayt/Duncan Idaho clone, who wrestles with his identity and memories), and far less of a stake in the outcome, which seems inevitable anyway. It isn't until we near the climax that Herbert reawakens some of his storytelling mojo and brings the book to something of an emotionally stirring conclusion, with a haunting final image of Paul walking off alone into the deep desert. On that image, Herbert might have been well advised to bring this saga to a close. But you can't keep a good god down. Nor, it would seem, a lucrative publishing juggernaut.
Followed by Children of Dune in 1976, and in 2009 by an all-new "direct sequel," The Winds of Dune, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.