Fiction Reviews

The Dervish House

(2010) Ian McDonald, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 472 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08053-9
(2010) Ian McDonald, Pyr, US$26.00, hrdbk,410 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14204-9


Another Ian McDonald novel, and we are in another country, with another unique world view. He really sets the bar high for himself and is his own tough act to follow given the success of books like River of Gods and Brasyl. Again, we are in slightly familiar McDonald territory with a country about to undergo major changes to its economy and status in the world. This time we are almost twenty years into the future, in Istanbul, with a population of fifteen million, some five years after Turkey has joined the EU when a terrorist bomb is about to go off, as a woman detonates a bomb inside Tram 157.

Over five sweltering days, McDonald takes us inside the Dervish House of the title bringing us together with the people who live within its walls, whose lives might be separate, but are really intertwined. We have an ousted academic, Georges Ferentinou, whose Greek origins have put an end to his career; we have a nine year old boy who plays detective with technology from the confines of his own room because a heart complaint means that he cannot bear to hear loud noises; we have stock-market trader, or possibly more accurately, swindler, Adnan, who dreams of getting rich quick, but then again, heís had that dream before; and his wife, Ayse, who sells religious artefacts. Then there is nervous Necdet (well he was on that tram when the bomb went off), who is a mystic who can see Djinn; and there are those who deal in nano-technology who need the help of Layla, a slightly downtrodden marketing consultant who has never had the breaks she deserves, who is called in to save their business. These characters are so well written that they all deserve top-billing, especially the invalid boy Can Durukan with his robot pets that he sends out into the city to beam back images to him, and of course in the aftermath of the latest terrorist bombing he sees things that no-one else can see, or should see.

But the other main character is Istanbul itself, and Turkey to a greater extent. This is a city and country on the borderland between the old and the new, the traditional and the technological, and the East and the West, as well as playing a pivotal part in supplying the gas reserves of Russia and the Asia to the world, but also a major role in the information and carbon credits markets. Iíve never been to Turkey, and donít know if McDonald has, but it certainly feels like it given the attention to detail which includes things like food and fashion and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It reeks of authenticity, even the speculative parts which include a well thought out Ė not too alarmist Ė use of nanotechnology, robot drones and cybernetic implants.

Intelligent, compelling, page-turning, well-written as you would expect, getting right into the story and driving it along, then occasionally putting the foot on the brake for a more languid pace when we encounter one or two of the main characters, but by then it doesnít matter, youíre hooked.

It is more than science fiction, it is a thriller, it is big business and cutthroat wheeling and dealing, it is a quest novel in search of the fantastic Ė one 'Mollified Man' Ė whatís that? Well, no spoilers here. It is a conspiracy novel, it is a soap opera, and I mean that in the best way possible, think Dickensian with an array of characters and circumstances and life events played against a large, tumultuous canvas. He has created real people and married them with believable technology and put them in a city that can never sleep. I havenít enjoyed a science fiction book so much since reading Geoff Rymanís Air. This is science fiction at its best.

Ian Hunter

Elsewhere we have Nadia Mook's review of The Dervish House.

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