I just reread the first 3 Dune books (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune). Consistent with my memory from the 1st reading, the first is awesome and the second one much weaker. The author’s son, Brian Herbert, wrote an afterword to the first book and introductions to the second in third, and in all three of these he finds it necessary to defend the second book, but, in my opinion, not for the right reasons — what he apologizes for is the tearing down of the hero, which I didn’t mind. What’s wrong with the second book is that it just doesn’t have the depth of intrigue or scope or carefulness that makes the first so epic. It’s like the actual writing fell victim to trying to prove a point. Maybe this echoes an ironic meta-consistency with the idea that heroes are fallible, but it’s not actually good for the book.
It’s really a matter of deftness — books one and three hint subtly at things beyond what’s stated, leaving much to the imagination and inspiring the reader, while book two generally describes things over-plainly, coming off stilted, and not taking advantage of the overall air of mystery.
The third book, on the whole, is a return to the layered intrigue and epic scale that made the first book so strong.
Side note: I read all of these on Kindle, and the Kindle rendition of the first book is horrible — chock full of typos and formatting errors. This is especially ironic given that the first book has been reissued as a vaunted “40th anniversary edition” and costs more; the sequels haven’t been given the “reissue-with-lots-of-formatting-errors” treatment, and are both cheaper to purchase and a lot easier to read. More on this later.