The Dervish House: A gorgeous SF novel

SFF book reviews Ian McDonald The Dervish HouseSFF book  reviews Ian McDonald The Dervish HouseThe Dervish House by Ian McDonald

Necdet, a troubled young man, is witness to what looks like a botched suicide bombing on a crowded city tram; afterwards, he starts seeing djinn and other supernatural creatures. Can, a nine year old boy with an amazing robotic toy — and a heart condition that confines him to a silent world — accidentally becomes involved in the intrigue. Ayse, a gallery owner, is contracted to find a mysterious and elusive relic, while her boyfriend Adnan, a successful trader, works on his own scheme to become rich. A retired Greek economist, Georgios, is recruited into a secret government think tank, and Leyla, a young social climber, tries to get involved with a promising nanotech startup.

These six narratives all take place in Istanbul, less than 20 years into the future. The city, historically a crossroads and now also the capital of the newest EU member nation, is where East meets West, old meets new, Christianity meets Islam, and Europe and Asia meet across the Bosphorus river that dissects the ancient city. Likewise, the lives of these six strangers will meet and interconnect in The Dervish House, a gorgeous new SF novel by Ian McDonald.

Just like in The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, that other excellent near-future SF novel set in a capital city where ancient cultural traditions mix with a strong modern and western influence, the various point-of-view characters tell a complex, multi-faceted story, but they also create a vivid impression of life in a bustling, endlessly fascinating metropolis, seen from several equally effective angles. However, don’t draw the comparison between those two novels too far: The Dervish House isn’t without some darker moments, but it’s considerably less grim than The Windup Girl, and Ian McDonald is a much more experienced writer, resulting in a more accomplished novel. Readers who liked The Windup Girl will probably love The Dervish House, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true, even though they’re both excellent and memorable novels.

The Dervish House is initially a bit confusing, as the six separate narratives are each introduced in rapid succession, but Ian McDonald has enough talent to help you settle into the novel quickly. After a few sub-chapters, you’ll start recognizing characters, and even before that point, you can just enjoy the gorgeous prose and the loving look at Istanbul. Luckily, the author doesn’t overdo the exotic, evoking the city’s atmosphere with a few details here and there, letting much of it come across naturally as the story progresses. Leyla hectically trying to get across the city to a job interview, Georgios gossiping in a coffee house with his ancient Greek friends, Adnan and his colleagues obsessing over an upcoming soccer match: it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve actually visited Istanbul after reading The Dervish House.

Even though there are connections between the six narratives, especially towards the end of the novel, it may occasionally feel as if you’re reading six novellas that just happen to be set in the same city. Luckily, they’re six really, really good novellas. Even though you may like some of the story lines more than others, as often happens in novels with multiple p.o.v.’s, don’t skim over any of them, because you’ll find that they all have strong, multi-dimensional main characters and solid plot arcs. By the end, when the stories weave together towards the novel’s climax, I felt as I’d read the literary equivalent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a movie that combines several Raymond Carver short stories into one big, impressive, bustling movie.

In the end, spending some time with these six characters in the fascinating city of Istanbul was pure enjoyment. Look for The Dervish House on the shortlists of the major SF&F awards next year. Highly recommended.

It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone it seems is after a piece of Turkey. But the shockwaves from this random act of 21st century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square. Welcome to the world of The Dervish House; the great, ancient, paradoxical city of Istanbul, divided like a human brain, in the great, ancient, equally paradoxical nation of Turkey. The year is 2027 and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union; a Europe that now runs from the Arran Islands to Ararat. Population pushing one hundred million, Istanbul swollen to fifteen million; Turkey is the largest, most populous and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It’s a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia, the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and Central Asia. Gas is power. But it’s power at a price, and that price is emissions permits. This is the age of carbon consciousness: every individual in the EU has a card stipulating individual carbon allowance that must be produced at every CO2 generating transaction. For those who can master the game, who can make the trades between gas price and carbon trading permits, who can play the power factions against each other, there are fortunes to be made. The old Byzantine politics are back. They never went away. The ancient power struggled between Sunni and Shia threatens like a storm: Ankara has watched the Middle East emerge from twenty-five years of sectarian conflict. So far it has stayed aloof. A populist Prime Minister has called a referendum on EU membership. Tensions run high. The army watches, hand on holster. And a Galatasary Champions’ League football game against Arsenal stokes passions even higher. The Dervish House is seven days, six characters, three interconnected story strands, one central common core — the eponymous dervish house, a character in itself — that pins all these players together in a weave of intrigue, conflict, drama and a ticking clock of a thriller.

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STEFAN RAETS reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

View all posts by Stefan Raets (retired)

2 comments

  1. I’ve read only one of McDonald’s novels, King of Morning, Queen of Day, and it’s extremely different from The Dervish House in setting and plot…but you’ve hit upon one of the primary strengths I noticed in KoMQoD: multiple narratives, and every single one of the narratives is strong. I need to try more of his stuff.

  2. Looks good!

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