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.