The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010)
Reviewed by Tony Keen
(This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in Vector #266.)
I am about to board a tram that will take me towards Necatibey Cadessi, where the action of Ian McDonald’s new novel The Dervish House begins. As in the novel, there is a Champions League match in Turkey in a few days, though it is Manchester United versus Bursaspor, not Galatasaray and Arsenal. This information is biographical to me personally, but it may help you understand why this novel connects with me so beautifully.
This summer, posters appeared advertising Dan Brown’s latest novel, showing various situations in which people are so wrapped up in reading Brown’s The Lost Symbol that they are ignorant of the dangers around them. In one, a man is merrily absorbed in his book while his barbecue turns into an inferno. I like to think that he would cast the Brown itself into the flames should some kind person show him a copy of The Dervish House, a novel that presses many of the same buttons as Brown’s book but is the work of an immeasurably more talented writer.
The Dervish House is the third of McDonald’s loose trilogy of ‘post-colonial’ novels, after River of Gods and Brasyl, both of which won the BSFA Award. These three novels (and the short story collection Cyberabad Days) take science fiction outside the normal First World settings of North America, Europe and Japan, and instead explore India, Brazil and, now, Turkey. In a lesser writer’s hands, the danger would be that such accounts could become patronizing. But McDonald knows how to avoid the traps of white colonialism. His interest in settings that would, for most writers, be non-traditional, goes back at least to Sacrifice of Fools, set in the Belfast in which he has lived for most of his life, a background most writers would pass over, or get horribly wrong. In the three recent novels, McDonald has plainly done his research; as a result he paints pictures of the countries that are vibrant and convincing, taking them on their own terms. Apart from the changes that have taken place recently, and further changes that McDonald predicts, The Dervish House showcases a fully-realised Turkey which is fundamentally the nation I remember from my own visits in the nineties and earlier this decade, and indeed, McDonald’s Istanbul is the Istanbul in which I am completing the final version of this review (like the novel, my visit began with a terrorist bomb). But McDonald never paints his pictures through infodump. A McDonald novel contains an enormous amount of information, but none of it is gratuitous.
As with the other two novels, a big science-fictional idea is central to The Dervish House. After exploring artificial intelligence in River of Gods and alternate worlds in Brasyl, McDonald now investigates nanotechnology. In approach, The Dervish House is perhaps most like River of Gods, where nine individuals were followed in order to tell the overall story of the novel’s tenth character, mid-twenty-first century India. Here, six characters’ lives interleave through a week in Istanbul, to tell the story of that city in the twenty-first century. The Queen of Cities, not any of the humans, is the novel’s central character, and it is to Istanbul that McDonald gives the novel’s opening and close.
Part of the story takes in Brown-style semi-mystical objects and secret codes written into the city’s architecture. For many a writer this would be enough for a whole novel; for McDonald it is almost a sub-plot, in a book that also covers terrorist schemes (one of which resembles the McGuffin of the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough), financial swindles, European football and the legacy of the military dictatorship of the Eighties, as well as the previously mentioned nanotechnology.
Yet, for all this richness, arguably The Dervish House is in some ways the least ambitious of the three novels. River of Gods, which is significantly longer, uses multiple narratives, ones that only briefly touch each other, to tell the story of a country, with a potentially world-changing conclusion. Brasyl, which is shorter, follows three narratives – one contemporary, one twenty-five years in the future and one three hundred years in the past – that converge finally in an unexpected but extremely dramatic fashion. The stakes in The Dervish House are far lower; though serious consequences could ensue, they are not on the same level as the potential threats in River of Gods or Brasyl, in each of which there is a serious possibility that the world could end.
The Dervish House recounts a single week in the lives of what are, essentially, a group of neighbours, whose lives are much more closely interconnected than those of the principal characters in River of Gods. The setting for the most part is the single city of Istanbul. There are flashbacks to people’s pasts in the Mediterranean area of Lycia (as someone who wrote a Ph.D. on the Lycian civilization, I can tell you that McDonald gets that right as well) and a brief trip to the north-east of the country, but these are not where the novel’s heart is. Overall, everything seems rather more circumscribed. But I would argue that the novel is not in any way weakened by this narrowing of scale.
It is also the most overtly political of the three novels, and perhaps McDonald’s most political work since 1996’s Sacrifice of Fools. This is partly because it is the least far into the future: 2026, as opposed to 2032 (Brasyl) or 2047 (River of Gods). But it is also because McDonald directly addresses current political issues. Some characters in the novel were born around 1960, and so can remember the 1980 military coup and the ruthless suppression of political dissent that followed. This is something to which the current Turkish population, especially those who were there at the time, have still to fully reconcile themselves, and the military’s role in politics remains something of a concern in modern Turkey, as the recent alleged ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Ergenekon’ plots show. McDonald also engages with the idea of Turkish entry into the EU; in The Dervish House Turkey is both in the EU and in the Eurozone (here recent events, specifically the 2010 crisis in the weaker members of the Eurozone such as Greece, Spain and Ireland, have rather overtaken the novel). It is a book from which McDonald’s own political views – liberal, understanding but with a clear moral sense of right and wrong, unmuddied by relativism – emerge more clearly than perhaps in the previous two novels.
Moreover, it is the most carefully constructed of the novels. The interweaving lives, the consequences of one character’s actions upon the others, the unravelling of carefully devised plans due to unexpected factors, all of these are diligently and coherently assembled. One might say that the dénouement is perhaps a little too neat, that everything is wrapped up a little too tidily, and that McDonald is a little too kind to his point-of-view characters in a way that he is not in River of Gods. But I would argue that these are minor quibbles and, for all that The Dervish House is in some aspects on a smaller scale than the earlier novels, it is the best-written of the three.
As I approached the end of The Dervish House, I found my speed of reading slowed down. This was not because I was bored or couldn’t face reading the novel – it is because I was enjoying the novel too much. I didn’t want the book to end and was trying to put off as long as possible the moment where I would have to leave McDonald’s rich world. This is one of the finest novels I’ve read since, oh, the last Ian McDonald novel. Another BSFA Award seems highly probable, and a Clarke nomination in order.
Now for that tram…