Book review: The Dervish House

Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House.

Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr (USA), Gollancz (UK)

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly appreciate it for a good one. Stephan Martiniere is the artist behind the amazing artwork that adorns the front of Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (US edition), and luckily, the content of the novel is just as stunning as its aesthetics.

Set primarily in the district of Eskiköy in Istanbul, Turkey in 2027, the novel uses lashings of cyberpunk setting and nanotechnological themes, steeped in the rich Islamic world of the country to create a sci-fi novel in the tradition of River Of Gods/Cyberabad Days and Brasyl. Turkey is depicted here as a member of the European Union for five years, but bitterly divided. Political tensions mount and are exacerbated by a coming football match between Arsenal and Galatasaray, while traders wheel and deal in gas markets from Russia, and the vacuum-bombed fields of Qom.

Those who have previously enjoyed McDonald’s narrative style will find a great deal to like in The Dervish House. The plot follows three distinct-yet-interconnected strands, and the sense of immersion within the world is the same as the India of 2047 that McDonald previously wrote about, as well as his version of Africa and Latin America. Eskiköy feels alive, and the location of Dervish House is a character in itself.

It’s worth saying, though, that McDonald has always been a dense and particular writer, and The Dervish House is not a light read. The narrative is peppered with characters that are generally unfamiliar to Western eyes, lending a sophisticated and foreign quality to the mind’s voice, but also producing a hesitant pace of reading, if you’re consistent to the pronunciation. In addition, his long expository sentences may be a struggle for some who are used to snappier prose, and if you’re not particularly interested in the cultural aspects of science fiction as opposed to simply the technological, this isn’t for you.

That being said, McDonald’s writing has been steadily improving in terms of its lyrical and descriptive quality over the years, and it seems his recent foray into short stories with Cyberabad Days has helped his focus and tightness. Several passages shine with literary flow and power, in particular his story of an Alexandrian noble who chooses to become a Mellified Man, or the Monkey-bot’s flight through the roofs of Eskiköy. Other passages are bluntly direct, serving to lend affectation to a multi-layered and mature story, such as the bomb on the Enginsoy Square tram or the car race of the Ultralords. With a supernatural bent in the form of the djinn, too, McDonald keeps his story fresh with every chapter and its flickering viewpoints, giving a series of snapshots that come together to form a panorama of his world.

The Dervish House is an excellent sci-fi tale from a phenomenal writer, one who deserves every plaudit that can be heaped upon him. Those who appreciate slow-burning, dense and creative genre work should get this book now.

[isbn name=”The Dervish House”]978-0575080539[/isbn]