The Dervish House

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…

15 thoughts on “The Dervish House

  1. My first one was the book review club for Winter Song by Colin Harvey. But, as Niall has noted, it is all change at Vector. We are not sure yet what this means for the blog. However, one thing I have been very keen to do since I became reviews editor is make more content available online. It just so happens that Tony sent me this review from Turkey and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. So I hope you enjoyed this review and there will be more to come (although usually after they have been published in Vector.)

  2. I do hope this discussion thread, as it goes on, will continue to focus the true salient here: not the content of Tony’s review, but the extraordinary fact that the Vector reviews editor is posting on the Vector blog.

  3. >So I hope you enjoyed this review and there will be more to come (although usually after they have been published in Vector.)
    >the extraordinary fact that the Vector reviews editor is posting on the Vector blog.

    Isn’t the BSFA is in danger of undermining its own reason for existence? Matrix has disappeared to be replaced by an infrequently updated, very slow and sadly unusable website, and now there is possibly more material appearing here on this blog than in Vector itself – certainly more frequent material. If this migration continues I worry there’ll be little incentive for members to join/rejoin the BSFA.

  4. The issue of Vector in which Tony’s review will be appearing contains 22 reviews and one interview in the reviews section alone. That leaves all the rest of the features in the magazine, not to mention Focus and the special pamphlets. We’ve also managed to send two books out free of charge to the membership this year. So I hope members feel that they are getting unique and valuable content for their money.

    I do think it is important to make some of the content of the magazines available online in order to raise the profile of the BSFA and to bring it to the attention of new readers. Additionally, in the case of the reviews section, I sometimes receive reviews which are substantially larger than the space I have available. For example, this review is 400 words longer than the version which will appear in Vector. I hope that by publishing the expanded version here I am providing added value to members as well as encouraging potential members.

    Usually, I would only publish an expanded version online after members have received Vector. In this particular case, the personal connection made me keen to publish it immediately. I don’t envisage this being a regular occurance. Similarly, whilst I am keen to make more of our archive reviews available online this would only be some time after they have been originally published.

    I appreciate that there have been some issues with the timeliness of of the BSFA’s publications. We know this is frustrating for the membership and the committee is working to address this.

    Finally, I would echo Adam’s comment that it would be nice to see any comments on the review itself.

  5. Thanks for the reply Martin, packed full of factual yumminess. I guess the BSFA needs to concentrate more on those goodies you mentioned and the other stuff the BSFA provides: books, the recent survey etc (which I saw in a charity shop this lunch time – not my copy, honest). Perhaps a magazine like Matrix has had its day. I only raised the concern here because firstly there isn’t really anywhere else usable to raise it, and secondly that seemed to be the door that Adam was opening. If you look back at his comment, he does actually say that the salient point is that you are posting here – which I took to be mean you posting the review – rather than the content of Tony’s review itself. Unless he was being ironic, of course.

  6. It’s a perfectly decent review that hits all the major notes you would want it to hit. I must confess to being a bit disappointed though. I knew that Tony had visited Turkey and the opening paragraph made me wonder whether he was going to write about the book through the medium of his tourism.

    THAT would have made a great piece of criticism. This is a good review, but it is not the piece I had in mind when I started reading it.

    Oh and agreed on Matrix, I think that something definitely has to give there as it is really not being used to the best of its potential. Matrix could take many forms (or none at all) and most of them are better than the current one.

  7. Sean:

    the recent survey etc (which I saw in a charity shop this lunch time – not my copy, honest).

    I’m quite happy for it to get out into the world, personally. If you check back in six months and it’s still there, then I might be a little sad. ;-)

    And just to echo Martin, I’m sorry about the disrupted schedule. V264, as Martin said, should go to print any day now, and I have almost all the content for V265 in hand. (The outstanding bit is by, er, me, and I’m hoping to get organised this weekend…


    I’ve been mulling over the relationship of the novel to tourism, and in particular trying to articulate why I think it’s notGap Year SF“, but it’s a thorny subject. I think it’s notable, though, that some of the characters debate cultural appropriation at one point — using that precise term. I can’t imagine that went in there by accident, and I think the scene in question tries to articulate quite a nuanced position.

    (The other things I’ve been mulling about the novel are, one, its use of present tense, or the use of present tense in sf in general, riffing off Philip Pullman’s recent objections to the form, and two, the way in which it portrays the world as a palimpsest of systems. But I haven’t had the mental space to knock those together into anything substantive, either.)

  8. Niall – would love to hear your thoughts on the present tense thing anyway. Seemed to me Pullman was having a hissy fit over nothing there (and TDH is just one pudding proof of how summarily wrong he is).

  9. Briefly, I think Pullman is wrong to dismiss the effect, but broadly right about the nature of the effect. He writes:

    What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate. […] I dislike it partly because it makes me feel sick, and partly because the camera never seems to be looking where I want to look, and partly because of the sheer monotony of texture that it brings, but mainly because of its falsehood. It seems to say: “We were there when these things happened. They were real. We didn’t have time to adjust the focus on that shot or swing round in time to see who said those words or keep the camera steady. It was all happening there right in front of us. It was all urgent and real.”

    Well, of course it wasn’t real and of course it wasn’t urgent, and there was plenty of time to get the focus right, and if they’d wanted to they could have put the camera on a stand so it didn’t shake about.

    This is basically accurate, isn’t it? It’s just that all those characteristics can be features rather than bugs. Look at the opening bomb in The Dervish House: Claustrophobic, pressed up against the immediate, urgent: all check. It’s easy to imagine the film of the scene: the tensely normal tram ride while we wait for the inevitable, the soundless pictures corresponding to that one-sentence paragraph after detonation, the sudden return of noise as Necdet Hasguler and the other passengers escape (screaming, roaring). Just as with hand-held cameras, the artifice is both invisible and — thanks to the contrast with the cool stork’s-eye-view establishing shot — immediately apparent.

    And I’d argue the novel’s tone is relatively consistent throughout; there is some modulation, but nothing like the range of expressiveness that Pullman prefers. But again, what’s impressive is how McDonald sustains his tone for the duration of a novel — through the rhythm of his sentences, the continuousness of his scenes (hopping between different time points without major breaks, for instance), the specificity of his description, and the compressed time period — so that the response (my response, at any rate) is not numbness, but a need to drive on, to turn the next page. The Dervish House is a book about being on the cusp of things, about the moments when choices are made. But aside from the opening and closing overviews, it does rely on the reader to stand back and assemble the mosaic, it doesn’t offer the space to do that within its own pages.

  10. Thanks for that, Niall.

    To be honest, I’m really not sure what Pullman means by “limited range of expressiveness”. Anything you can do with the past tense (past continuous, past perfect, conditional forms etc… – the examples he gives in the article of “what was happening when something else happened”, “what happened before what” and so forth) you can just as well do with the present and the corresponding tense variations. Very occasionally you’ll find yourself in a place where a form sounds a bit odd, but that’s really from lack of custom, and I’d say the reverse applies as well – there are times when a present tense approach affords you a smoother feel than the past equivalent. So for me, it’s swings and roundabouts.

    What surprised me was the way Pullman seemed to assume (one might say rather bombastically insist) that the one particular stylistic application of the present he’s comfortable with – sudden, visceral, immediacy, yanked out of a surrounding past tense continuum for momentary effect, a trick french literature seems particularly enthused with (or at least it was back when I was studying it) – is the only valid application for said tense. This is monstrously dictatorial and quite bluntly, just not the case. One of the more sedately paced genre(ish) novels I’ve read in recent years, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, makes use of present tense narrative throughout. So does Peter Watts’ Starfish (though interestingly enough the sequel Maelstrom does not). And I’m just finishing up Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, which is present narrated too. In none of these cases do I get the impression the author was trying to generate a violently kinetic sense of the immediate – any more than I generally have the impression when I read a past tense narrative that the writer is deliberately trying to set up a distance between their fiction and the reader. I think this is purely a stylistic option, in much the same way first or third person narrative is, and I find Pullman’s take on it rather curmudgeonly.

  11. Jonathan:

    I too wish that I had written the review you were hoping for, rather than the rather pedestrian piece I have written, which I don’t feel gets near to doing justice to McDonald’s extraordinary novel. Nic Clarke’s review in Strange Horizons is better than mine, but even she doesn’t quite capture it.

    Had I actually written the review in Istanbul, I might have taken the tack you suggest, but I only did the final polish – the rest of the review had been written a few weeks earlier.

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