Necdet, a troubled young man, is witness to what looks like a botched suicide bombing on a crowded city tram; afterwards, he starts seeing djinn and other supernatural creatures. Can, a nine year old boy with an amazing robotic toy — and a heart condition that confines him to a silent world — accidentally becomes involved in the intrigue. Ayse, a gallery owner, is contracted to find a mysterious and elusive relic, while her boyfriend Adnan, a successful trader, works on his own scheme to become rich. A retired Greek economist, Georgios, is recruited into a secret government think tank, and Leyla, a young social climber, tries to get involved with a promising nanotech startup.
These six narratives all take place in Istanbul, less than 20 years into the future. The city, historically a crossroads and now also the capital of the newest EU member nation, is where East meets West, old meets new, Christianity meets Islam, and Europe and Asia meet across the Bosphorus river that dissects the ancient city. Likewise, the lives of these six strangers will meet and interconnect in The Dervish House, a gorgeous new SF novel by Ian McDonald.
Just like in The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, that other excellent near-future SF novel set in a capital city where ancient cultural traditions mix with a strong modern and western influence, the various point-of-view characters tell a complex, multi-faceted story, but they also create a vivid impression of life in a bustling, endlessly fascinating metropolis, seen from several equally effective angles. However, don’t draw the comparison between those two novels too far: The Dervish House isn’t without some darker moments, but it’s considerably less grim than The Windup Girl, and Ian McDonald is a much more experienced writer, resulting in a more accomplished novel. Readers who liked The Windup Girl will probably love The Dervish House, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true, even though they’re both excellent and memorable novels.
The Dervish House is initially a bit confusing, as the six separate narratives are each introduced in rapid succession, but Ian McDonald has enough talent to help you settle into the novel quickly. After a few sub-chapters, you’ll start recognizing characters, and even before that point, you can just enjoy the gorgeous prose and the loving look at Istanbul. Luckily, the author doesn’t overdo the exotic, evoking the city’s atmosphere with a few details here and there, letting much of it come across naturally as the story progresses. Leyla hectically trying to get across the city to a job interview, Georgios gossiping in a coffee house with his ancient Greek friends, Adnan and his colleagues obsessing over an upcoming soccer match: it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve actually visited Istanbul after reading The Dervish House.
Even though there are connections between the six narratives, especially towards the end of the novel, it may occasionally feel as if you’re reading six novellas that just happen to be set in the same city. Luckily, they’re six really, really good novellas. Even though you may like some of the story lines more than others, as often happens in novels with multiple p.o.v.’s, don’t skim over any of them, because you’ll find that they all have strong, multi-dimensional main characters and solid plot arcs. By the end, when the stories weave together towards the novel’s climax, I felt as I’d read the literary equivalent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a movie that combines several Raymond Carver short stories into one big, impressive, bustling movie.
In the end, spending some time with these six characters in the fascinating city of Istanbul was pure enjoyment. Look for The Dervish House on the shortlists of the major SF&F awards next year. Highly recommended.
Set in the near future, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House explores the rise of nanotechnology — the next great technological revolution — in Istanbul. McDonald’s story has six protagonists whose stories are held together by the titular Dervish House, which is located in Adem Dede Square, a backstreet in the Queen of Cities.
A terrorist bombing on a public tram sets off McDonald’s plot. A woman has killed herself, but, unusually, there are no other casualties. Instead, one survivor, Necdet, discovers that he is suddenly able to see djinn. Leyla misses her job interview because of the suicide bomber, but her family sets her up with a nanotech startup. Retired professor of economics Georgios Ferentinou’s terror market is up 20 points, and the government calls to offer him a job with a new think tank. The bombing does not greatly affect the markets that the trader Adnan is manipulating to make his fortune, nor does it disrupt his wife Ayşe’s buying and selling of religious antiquities. Nine-year-old Can Durukan, who has Long QT syndrome, does not witness the bombing, but he sends his BitBot into the city streets to see what happened.
Can’s story is often the most charming part of The Dervish House. Can imagines himself as a heroic “Boy Detective,” and his BitBot — which can transform from snake to rat to monkey to bird — recalls the freedom offered by familiars like Lyra’s Pantalaimon from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Can’s age, his heart condition, and his protective parents make him the least independent character in this novel. However, his BitBot allows him access to more adventure than any of the adults, all of whom are constrained by the realities of a world where workers need to inhale nano shots to improve their focus so that they can remain professionally competitive.
In many ways, The Dervish House feels less like a contemporary work of SFF than a Golden Age science fiction novel. Today’s SFF is often full of warnings about the future problems our technology enables, and, yes, the technology that McDonald describes is quite dangerous. For example, nano that improves our focus can also be used to erase our memories, or even to alter our beliefs. However, McDonald allows more than enough room to make the future seem, if not wonderful, at least wondrous. And I found it interesting that he chose to set this story at a time when nano was on the cusp of fundamentally changing the world, leaving his visionary character Aso to speculate about what the world might be like after the nanotech revolution is complete.
The treatment of technology is somewhat unusual, but the novel’s reliance on many perspectives feels familiar. McDonald’s decision to tell this story from the point of view of six characters that only happen to live near each other is a bold one. It allows him to really open up this future Istanbul, and his cast gives him access to the government, the academy, the market, robotics, art, and religion. McDonald is an author that likes to stop and look through every window in his future world, suggesting that he, like Georgios, takes a great deal of pleasure from the ingenuity of ideas. There are many moments to admire, but one of my favorites is Selma Özgün’s profession. Selma is a “psychogeographer” that has mapped the many layers of Istanbul through history. She looks for trends, such as why one side of a street has tended to be disastrous for business while the other has tended to be profitable.
Because McDonald’s story contains so many perspectives, I found that The Dervish House often had to rely on the premise, rather than the plot or even the characters, to keep my interest. There is very little time for complications and setbacks, and our characters generally move from one successful venture to another. It’s an approach that does little to enhance suspense. For example, when Can decides to truly live out his “Boy Detective” fantasy and leaves his home, his greatest obstacle is a group of old men that are curious about his robot. Will he be able to come up with an explanation that will satisfy their curiosity, or will they ask him to go home?
The future that McDonald envisions is indeed compelling. Though I found the plot too convenient, there is a great deal here that warrants acclaim. I would encourage hesitant readers to pick up a copy of The Dervish House.