Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dervish House

I have to admit I approached Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House with a bit of trepidation. Firstly it was identified as SF and SF and I have never played together well, secondly everything I had heard about the book seemed to indicate that it had been nominated for the Hugo in an effort to give the award a bit of cred as something that could be won by serious literary works.

It’s hard to accurately classify The Dervish House. The SF seems to be the smallest part of it really. It’s only classified that way by virtue of it being set in 2027 and containing some nanotech. It’s part SF, part political thriller, part boys own adventure, part caper novel, there’s some historical fiction and even a love story.

The story covers the lives of 6 individuals over the course of week. Initially the 6 main characters are connected because they all live in Adem Dede Square, which has one of Istanbul’s few remaining dervish houses in it. Their lives will intersect during this week in ways that none of them could have envisaged at the beginning of it.

Like McDonald’s recent works The Dervish House is set in an exotic, developing country; this time Turkey’s ancient bustling capital of Istanbul. Ian McDonald writes lovingly about the city and seems to have captured it’s spirit and that of it’s residents. The city itself becomes in effect a 7th main character.

The 6 principals, through whose eyes readers see the story in short point of view chapters are Georgios Ferentinou; a retired Greek economist who pines for a lost love and wishes that his life had turned out differently. Can; a nine year old boy with a heart problem, who interacts with the world outside the square and his special school, mainly via the use of his remarkable bitbot, a nanotech toy. Adnan; an aggressive trader who is trying to pull off the biggest deal of his career. Ayse; Adnan’s wife, a dealer in religious antiquities who is on the trail of a mythical artefact called The Mellified Man. Leyla; a young lady from the country, who is trying to forge a career away from her tomato farming community as a marketing manager. Finally there is Necdet, a tortured former drug addict who goes from battling the demons of his past, to seeing the real thing on a regular basis.

The book is really a bit of a slow burn and takes far too long introducing it’s main characters and setting up their stories. It was a little frustrating at times trying to work out where and how they connected and why I should care. Once this is done, and everything is set in place ,the last 100 or so pages are a real thrill ride and it’s hard not to be taken in by it all and I genuinely connected with the characters, except maybe for Necdet, who I honestly could have done with a lot less of. I felt Leyla got hard done by in this respect, readers seemed to get less of her than the others and along with boy detective Can, she was probably one of the most accessible of the sextet.

Although McDonald could have done with a ruthless editor to trim some of the fat and the occasional unnecessary indulgence The Dervish House is a good read. It was unfortunate that it took so long to make me care about the characters and to set everything up. It’s all self contained and ends neatly, no overblown series in the brewing here. I don’t know that I could rate it as the best of any given year, but it’s well worth considering as entertainment done with style.


  1. Hmm, maybe I'll go back and finish it off then. I figured that if the story didn;t seem to be going anywhere in the first 150 pages (of a 400 page book) then there's no point sticking with it - i've got far too many other books to read to keep struggling with something that's not interesting.

    That being said, I did like Leyla (from what little I saw of her), and the legend of the Mellified Man also interested me, nbut pretty much everyone / everything else left me cold.

  2. Can's story gets a lot more exciting and interesting as the story progresses as do the dual and occasionally intersecting stories of Adnan and Ayse.