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REVIEW: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: July 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exceptionally well-crafted setting and utterly believable.

The Dervish House is Ian McDonald’s new novel set in a near-future Istanbul. Soaked in history, nanotechnology, and McDonald’s always-amazing settings, this book is arguably one of the best science fiction titles I’ve read this year.

I have loved “traveling” with McDonald since I first picked up River of Gods, his 2004 novel set in a near-future India. Following that book, he has carved a very nice niche for himself by setting his novels in somewhat unusual (read: non-American/British) settings. Chaga (published in the US as Evolution’s Shore) took us to Kenya, River of Gods took us to India, Brasyl took us to (surprise!) Brazil, and now The Dervish House brings us to Istanbul.

Setting has always been central to McDonald’s works (even in his earliest novels like the harsh yet beautiful Desolation Road). I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I’d never visited India, Brazil, or Kenya. So when I read his earlier books, the settings were lush and fascinating to me, but still alien. But Istanbul, I’m familiar with. I lived in Europe for ten years and spent quite some time in Turkey on business, so for the first time I was able to read a McDonald book with pre-existing familiarity with the setting and culture. And as far as I can tell, McDonald nails it.

Istanbul has always been a crossroads of commerce, history and religion. Today, it’s at the heart of a maelstrom of geopolitics, religious debate, and energy economics. McDonald captures that intersection and projects outwards from it, taking us to a Turkey that just-recently joined the European Union and still struggles with its identity as a nation, its religious history, its place in the region, and its internal politics (generals vs. intelligentsia vs. religious fundamentalists of various types). His Istanbul is recognizable to anyone who has even spent a day in that city, capturing the Byzantine streets and the culture of a city that straddles two continents. A writer of lesser skill would have simplified the reality, perhaps skimped on the economics or drawn caricatures of the complex cultures that intertwine in the city. But McDonald doesn’t. He balances the different interests and cultural backgrounds of his characters deftly, showcasing a nation that waking up to its dreaming potential.

The book follows the lives of six characters who live in an old building that long ago had belonged to or been involved with an ascetic Sufi fraternity. The dervish house is the hub, the connecting strand that joins together the six characters in this story. The events of the book unfold starting with a suicide bombing, and how it affects – directly and indirectly – the lives of the people who live in the tekke (dervish house). The story is told from the perspectives of each:

  • An academic economist forced into retirement,
  • A nine-year old boy with a dangerous heart condition,
  • A rural young woman determined to make it as a professional in the big city,
  • An ambitious young woman who runs a religious art gallery,
  • A ruthless energy trader, and;
  • A troubled, screw-up caught up in the development of street sharia.

Their lives are tied to together by the tekke, by the suicide bombing several blocks away, and by a near-mythical relic from Istanbul’s past. Each character is painstakingly crafted. Their voices are distinct, their judgments and values a clear outgrowth of their background. These characters have depth, and plainly show McDonald’s careful research into some of the more esoteric branches of market theory, contemporary futures contracts, and obscure kabbalistic sects. This research gives this book its lush, rich texture and bring the characters and setting alive.

The intersecting character arcs are exceptionally well done, and they are at once the book’s primary strength and its greatest weakness. In fact, that’s the only reason why I’m giving this book four stars instead of five: I feel like I have seen this device used before. When I think about McDonald’s works, the ones that instantly come to mind are Desolation Road, its sequel Ares Express, and River of Gods. Each of these books relies on the same narrative structure: different characters whose lives intersect through one (or a handful) of locations. McDonald does this better than anyone I can think of just now. But I’d like to see him stretch more, maybe try some different structures out. It would be nice to see, because having read most of his work I find that I know how it will flow. I can’t predict the events of the plot, but I can predict its cadences and rhythms. It’s like listening to a new symphony by a beloved composer: you can just tell how the music will swell next, even if you’ve never heard it. Much as I enjoy McDonald’s symphonies, I’d like to be surprised.

The physical book itself is great. Pyr did an excellent job with the hardcover, designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and with a cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere. The cover illustration sets the tone for the whole work, showing the crowded streets of 2027 Istanbul, the combination of history (old buildings, traditional clothes) and uber-modernity (neon advertisements, robots, etc.). That cover image captures the mixing pot that is Istanbul, and captures the intersections of its residents lives just as well as the text. Martiniere’s covers and McDonald’s prose are a great pairing, and I’m glad to see that Pyr has maintained that connection through all of McDonald’s books they have published. Great job with that, and I hope they maintain it since I think that combination is just getting better and better.

This is not a rip-through-it-in-one-night, page-turning adventure. It has its moments of high tension and danger, but this is the kind of book that you want to enjoy over the course of several nights. This prose should be savored. If you have had your fill of anglophone settings and cultures in your science fiction, you should pick this up. If you are interested in high-quality literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future, pick this up. I think this is one of McDonald’s better works, and I definitely enjoyed the trip he took me on. If you find that you like this, there’s a variety of other great science fiction set outside of the American/British cultural background that you might enjoy, most notably the books by George Alec Effinger and Lucius Shepard‘s Life During Wartime.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read Brasyl, and honestly thought it was just OK. I had trouble finding the main characters interesting or likeable. I did take Dervish House out of the library when it first came out, got about 50 page in, and never went back, nothing about it grabbed me. I’m such a low-end cretin, it’s like McDonald’s stuff is too literature-ish for me.

    October 19, 2010

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