The Dervish House
by Ian McDonald
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Benjamin Wald
Pyr Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616142049
Date: 27 July 2010 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ian McDonald had become a highly cosmopolitan science fiction author. His last two novels, River of Gods and Brasyl, explored a near future version of India and Brazil, respectively. In his latest novel, McDonald takes us on a journey to the Turkey of 2012, focusing on the city of Istanbul. The Dervish House shows us this foreign land, suspended between the past and the future, the west and the east, religion and secularism, with impressive depth and richness. The plot unfolds through several separate branches, each with its own only occasionally overlapping cast of richly drawn characters. These strands do tie together loosely at the end, but each is a separate story in its own right, and together they explore the different dimensions of Istanbul.
In many ways, the setting is the most important character in the book. It is Istanbul more than anything else that ties the various stories of the book into a whole, and often the story seems meant more to highlight city than vice versa. While Iíve never been to Turkey myself, it certainly felt authentic, rife with little details that evoke a sense of the texture to the daily life of the city. McDonald is also excellent at evoking the sense of history and age, with one entire plot strand focusing on hunting down an ancient relic from centuries past, the fabled mellified man. This is also science fiction, of course, so McDonald explores not the city as it is, but as it might be. He adds a burgeoning development of nanotechnology, which spans everything from insect-sized robots that assemble themselves into larger devices that can change shape on command down to inhaled mists of nano-robots that improve concentration and focus.
The cast of characters is very broad, including such diverse types as an antiquities dealer, a high-rolling stock broker, a boy with a heart condition that restricts him to exploring the city through a swarm of mini-robots that assemble into the shapes of animals, an aging Greek economics professor and former revolutionary, and a young man who finds himself afflicted with visions of djinns who is hailed as a seer. Somehow, McDonald manages to imbue each of the characters with their own personality and perspective, providing a multitude of competing views on the city that serves to bring out its many facets.
The plot, as I mentioned, is only loosely connected. One thread follows the planning of a complex financial scam, another features a young boy whose amateur detective skills reveal a dangerous conspiracy, and a third deals with a search for a hidden relic through historical secrets worthy of a Dan Brown novel. I canít hope to summarize all that goes on, suffice it so say that I found it all fascinating. Many of the characters never meet or interact in any way. However, the stories are all tied together by the eponymous dervish house, the ancient home of a religious order that has been converted into housing units. Most of the character live in or near the dervish house, and it serves as an anchor to the wide-ranging plot threads.
The Dervish House cements Ian McDonaldís status as a first class talent, and one of my all-time favorite authors. He continues to depict the future of non-western cultures with creativity, depth, and verve. His prose is a delight to read, his characters are lively and authentic, and he can pull you in to a near-future setting like no one else I know. Iíd recommend this book to pretty much everyone.