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Chapterhouse: Dune, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1985, 464 pp.

Chapterhouse: Dune continues quite closely after the events of Heretics of Dune, unlike some of the earlier gaps in the series (which have added up to over five thousand years since the original Dune). In the dozen or so years since Heretics of Dune concluded, the Honoured Matres have almost completely destroyed the Bene Gesserit. Chapterhouse: Dune tells the story of how the Bene Gesserit fight back, and if only it were that simple. Herbert dangles a number of useless plot threads in front of the reader, and the ending is both unsatisfying and inconclusive. After the beautifully written closure of Heretics of Dune, which was both open-ended and a lovely wrap-up, this is particularly disappointing. The jacket copy gives us a bit of hype: "Blending familiar, beloved characters and situations with a whole fresh world of actions and events, [Herbert] leaves us breathless to make the next astonishing leap in the evolving grandeur that is Dune." Unfortunately, Herbert was to die in 1986, the year following the publication of this book, and we never found out how the Dune story would have evolved further.

Darwi Odrade is Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit, and has to contend with the drastic changes that she herself helped to effect in the previous book. The Bene Gesserit are under sustained attack by the Honoured Matres, with few allies in sight. Using technology gained from the Bene Tleilax (before they too were destroyed), the Sisterhood has created a ghola of Miles Teg, who needs training and education. The former Honoured Matre, Murbella, is also being groomed for Bene Gesserit schemes, along with her lover, Duncan Idaho. Only one Bene Tleilax survives, Scytale, but he does little except grumble in captivity. And in a wildly bizarre and underwritten subplot, a group of Jews decide to help the Bene Gesserit -- unfortunately, this adds nothing at all to the story. Chapterhouse: Dune ends with some violence that seems unexplained and abrupt, and then Murbella suddenly takes centre stage, and the Bene Gesserit pull victory out of a hat like magic.

Odrade directs most of the action in the book, and is a strong, sympathetic character, like the Bene Gesserit often are. Slyly, Herbert writes in a major flaw for all the Bene Gesserit (except Sheeana and Murbella), and in Odrade herself, whose main scheme is later revealed as a cure for that very flaw. I appreciated that turning point which forced a different evaluation of everything that had gone before in the Sisterhood. I also liked the love story between Duncan and Murbella, which, oddly, became a tragedy despite how Odrade's scheme should have made them a better match. Chapterhouse: Dune spends little time on Miles Teg, which would have strengthened the book, and just as small amount of quality time on the Honoured Matres. Herbert has better villains here than the Harkonnens, but I was still hoping for more depth in the Honoured Matres. I suppose Murbella herself stands in for the psychological struggles her former sisterhood will face in the events that follow the conclusion.

Even without a more satisfying conclusion to the series in terms of the overarching story, Chapterhouse: Dune provides tidy closure in an idea that Odrade talks about midway through the book. An acolyte has been asking about the Bene Gesserit Coda, a collection of sayings and aphorisms, and Odrade replies: "'We have them mainly to disprove them. The Coda is for novices and others in primary training'" (232). One of the main aphorisms in the Coda (which I don't want to trivialize by summarizing here) is itself disproved by the course of Chapterhouse: Dune. And in an odd, interesting way, the entire Dune series functions in the same way -- a kind of long-standing corrective to Herbert's tendency to use epigrams in each book. The Coda (Herbert's jargon) and the overall story work together to introduce Herbert's ideas and then refine them. As such, the Dune series demands a rather immense perspective.

Chapterhouse: Dune ends with a touching tribute by Herbert to his wife, Bev, who died in 1984. It seems a bit odd that he would include this -- I can't think of any other book with a similar coda. But it does not seem self-indulgent; it humanizes Herbert in a way that never happened before in this rather cerebral series. Herbert himself stares out from a full-size photograph on the back dust-jacket of my edition, and he looks quite unfamiliar without his trademark beard. His face itself summarizes all the kindness and intelligence that marked this remarkable series, quite unique and unmatched in all of science fiction.


Last modified: September 21, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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