This book (at least my edition) starts with an introduction by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, who has shepherded the world of Dune since his father’s death, co-writing books with Kevin J. Anderson and making sure his father’s stories and legacy are safe. This is nice of him! He clearly admired his father very much. Anyway, in the intro, he posits that Dune Messiah wasn’t nearly as well-received by fans and critics because Herbert does something unique to his hero that wasn’t as immediately pleasing or satisfying as said hero’s arc in the first book. I think he is partly right.
If you are nerd enough to have read the Appendices to Dune (hello!), then you know that Herbert wrote that Dune/Arrakis was a planet famously “afflicted by a hero”, which is a very striking way to think about the story of Paul Atreides, who by the end of the first book, has become an all powerful, practically omnipotent superhuman, on his way to being Galactic Emperor. The discerning reader (which I absolutely was not the first time I read Dune) will note that the whole of Dune is not solely some heroic, happy tale of valor and bravery and good conquering evil, but an enormous red warning flag. It is not natural or healthy for a single human to have so much power.
In many ways, Dune Messiah is exploring Herbert’s idea of what “real” ramifications having such a hero ruling the galaxy would actually mean, both for the people he’s ruling, and for Paul and his loved ones. He spends the entirety of this book undermining Paul’s heroic journey from the first book, turning his victories into problems, and taking away everything Paul values from him. The power essentially becomes its own entity, wearing Paul like a skin suit, and he can only follow in its wake. He spends the whole book trying to find a way to take back control of his own destiny. This is a completely fascinating way to take this story! I find it intellectually stimulating, and enjoy thinking about the different ways Paul’s arc from the first book is pulled through the dark mirror here.
This is absolutely not as purely pleasurable as Paul’s arc in the first book. In fact, it’s not pleasurable at all. So, yes, Brian Herbert is right in that I’m positive that fans and critics were not expecting, and did not like, the direction this story initially took. HOWEVER! That is not the only reason, I think, that I and others find this book to be a bit of a slog and hard to get into. Herbert’s style tends towards the impersonal anyway, often focusing on logistics and plot and theme in a way that leaves character emotions absent or hard to find. This book amplifies that tenfold. There is almost no emotional throughline to be found here. Even fraught plotlines like Chani’s dangerous pregnancy, and the resurrection of Duncan Idaho are moved towards the realm of plotting and machinations, and only occasionally visit the realm of emotions. Emotions are where you really hook a reader, and that is exactly where this book lacks. it’s hard to emotionally relate to someone whose main problem is “I’m so powerful what do I do now!” And this is both Paul and Alia in Dune Messiah. The other POV characters are either dealing with plots or plotting, and things get pretty obscure.
It took me three times as long to read this, the shortest book in the series by far, which is three times as short as Dune. I was planning on reading all six books this year, but I may have to stop after four (the last one I own), which I plan to read in April. We’ll see. It may pain me to leave the last two unread. Maybe time away from the series will let it breathe for me.