Chapterhouse: Dune is the sixth and final volume in Frank Herbert’s series of Dune novels. I first read the book shortly after it was published in 1985. Though I have reread some of the earlier Dune books a few times over the years, I just finished rereading Chapterhouse for the first time. In my opinion, the Dune universe that Herbert created in his six books is the most compelling and vividly imagined fictional universe in literature, putting The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter to shame. Despite my avid fandom, however, I have to admit that Herbert didn’t hit it out of the park every time. The phrase “last but not least” does not apply to the Dune series because Chapterhouse: Dune is clearly the worst book of the six.
The story takes place roughly 30,000 years in our future, immediately following the events of Heretics of Dune. At the end of that novel, the planet Arrakis was destroyed by the mysterious Honored Matres. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, however, absconded with a sandworm and have proceeded to create a new Dune on the planet they call Chapterhouse, which serves as the administrative headquarters of their order. The Honored Matres are hunting the Bene Gesserit to extinction. They have destroyed multiple worlds that housed Bene Gesserit schools and strongholds, but the location of Chapterhouse remains a secret. In previous books, Herbert revealed how elements of Christianity, Islam, and Zen Buddhism have survived mankind’s epic migration throughout the galaxy. In this novel, he introduces a sect of Jews who have secretly preserved their faith for tens of thousands of years and have allied themselves with the Bene Gesserit.
The previous Dune novels were often told from multiple perspectives by jumping around among members of an ensemble cast, each player representing one of myriad competing factions in the complex galactic society. In Chapterhouse: Dune, however, probably 80 percent of the story follows the Bene Gesserit Mother Superior Darwi Odrade as she devises a plan to deal with the Honored Matre crisis and ensure the survival of her order. This results in the reader sitting through an endless series of meetings among the Bene Gesserit bureaucracy. The dialogue, both verbal and interior, is mostly written as a string of quotable philosophical aphorisms, each of which could serve as the motto for an intellectual embroidered sampler. No author in fiction writes these aphorisms better than Herbert, but the cumulative effect is one of tedious verbosity. Nothing much resembling action happens in the first three quarters of the book. The intense focus on the Bene Gesserit administration also severely limits the scope and fascination of the Dune universe. The Honored Matres must remain a mystery, so they barely appear. The Tleilaxu have been wiped out but for one survivor. Sheeana, the Fremen girl who can talk to worms, was one of the most interesting characters from Heretics, but she only plays a minor supporting role here. Duncan Idaho is on hand as usual, but his presence feels more obligatory than necessary.
Another mark against Chapterhouse is that it ends on a cliffhanger and therefore feels incomplete. The final chapter, deliberately vague and a little silly, adds insult to injury. Herbert intended to write a sequel but died before he could complete it. His son Brian Herbert has published many posthumous Dune novels since Frank’s death, among them two sequels to Chapterhouse entitled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. (I haven’t read them.) If you enjoyed the first five books of Herbert’s Dune series, then by all means read Chapterhouse: Dune, but don’t expect it to be as great as the novels that preceded it.