Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Published: Pyr, 2010

Awards: BSFA Award, John W. Campbell Award
Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“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.

The Dervish House is [five] 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.”

I read The Dervish House as a part of my effort to read all of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominees

My Thoughts:

In some ways, this was a challenging book to read.  At first, there is very little in common between the many storylines, except that they all have some physical connection to the old dervish house at Adam Dede square.  Since the narrative skips constantly between each narrative thread, it is difficult, at first, to get any deep understanding of each story.  In addition, McDonald used a lot of Turkish and Islamic terms that were left unexplained, though they were often understandable through context.
The main characters are (and here I resort to bullet points):

  • A disgraced former economics professor, Georgios Ferentinou, who is a member of the tiny remaining Greek community of Istanbul
  • Nine year old ‘Boy Detective’ Can Durukan, who has a deadly heart disease, a lot of curiosity, and impressive toy ‘bots.
  • Country girl Leyla, who is trying to make a name for herself as a marketing expert
  • Slick businessman Adnan, who has a not-quite-legal scheme that could make him millions
  • Adnan’s wife Ayse, an antique religious art dealer searching for a mythical Mellified Man
  • Necdet Hasguler, who has been taken in by his brother’s newly formed Islamic shariat. Necdet started seeing djinn and the green saint Hizir after witnessing a tram bomb.

As you can see, that's quite a lot to introduce simultaneously.  Each of these characters’ plotlines interacts with the others, kind of like billiard balls on a table.  Sometimes they merely cross each other’s paths, sometimes they deflect each other, and sometimes they stick together for a time.  All of the threads don’t start to come together until near the end, and even then, I never really felt like they truly meshed into a coherent whole.

Even without a sense of coherence in the end, I did enjoy all of the individual stories.  While all of the main characters had their flaws, I was able to find something to appreciate in each of them.  There were also some scenes, mostly later in the book, that were particularly lyrical or emotionally effective.  The one that stands out the most in my mind is a pivotal scene for Adnan, where he shows through his actions exactly what kind of man he will allow himself to become in his pursuit of money.

Another strength of The Dervish House is McDonald’s vividly described near-future Istanbul.  I have never been to Turkey, so I have no idea if the Istanbul I have built up in my mind is anything like the one that actually exists. However, McDonald’s descriptions have left me with a very clear and detailed mental image of the physical city of Istanbul and its inhabitants. Beyond the physical presence of Istanbul, McDonald also presents a kind of ideological characterization of the city.  He illustrates a city both leaping into the future and bound to its past.  It’s a place that could be the birthplace of the Nanotech Revolution, the physical expression of the name of God, and the hiding place of the legendary honeyed corpse of a Mellified Man. This novel definitely gave me a desire to go and see the city for myself (maybe this summer—I hear short-term visas aren’t too hard to get). If the real Istanbul is anything like McDonald’s fictional representation, it must be a truly breathtaking place!

My Rating: 4.5/5

So much happens during the book that it’s hard to believe it all occurs within five days! However, since most of the plotlines are running in parallel, the action still sometimes seems to move slowly.  The many different storylines and characters made it initially hard to get into, but by the end I desperately wanted to know how everything worked out.  Once you get to know all of the characters, their distinct personalities and intricate, overlapping stories really drive the novel. The future city of Istanbul is also prominent in the story, and its society, along with its physical and ideological presence, influences the story significantly. While The Dervish House is a thoroughly entertaining read, the separate threads of story don’t mesh well enough into a coherent whole by the end to leave me completely satisfied.


  1. I've gotten this book out of the library twice, and twice I have gotten about 50 pages into it, and taken it right back. Not sure if it's his writing style, too many characters, too many unrelated (At least at first) story lines . . .

  2. Yeah, the first 'day' or so was kind of hard to get into for me as well. There's just so much exposition and not much of anything tying it all together at that point.