The Dervish House

by Ian McDonald

Cover image

Publisher: Pyr
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 1-61614-346-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 359

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

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The Dervish House is the third of McDonald's loose "city" series: books that look at an extrapolated near future of a developing country and try very hard to enmesh the reader in a vision of the future more native to that culture and city than the Western European or American future that science fiction normally shows. The previous books looked at India (River of Gods) and Brazil (Brasyl). This one looks at Turkey, specifically Istanbul.

If you've read either of the previous books, you know roughly what to expect here, although The Dervish House is more like River of Gods than Brasyl. It's a mosaic novel following all the people who live in and around the titular house: the proprietor of an antiquities shop, whose husband is a trader; a woman trying to make a career in marketing; a man who is offering his brother, caught in a terrorist bombing at the start of the book that fails to kill anyone but the bomber, a place to stay while he works at a disaster recovery site for a corporation; an elderly Greek man, a former professor and a genius with data, who didn't leave the country with most of his compatriots years before; and a married couple with a boy with a heart condition that leads him to be voluntarily deafened. McDonald moves from one to the next, advancing each of their stories in small steps, having them weave in and around each other and react to glimpses and angles of the others' experiences. Some are close, such as the Greek man and the boy; some rarely interact. All of them interact with Istanbul, with technology and progress, and with the complicated idea of Turkey and its future.

As with the other McDonald books, I have to state the huge disclaimer for this review: I'm not Turkish, have never been to Turkey, and know very little about the culture. I therefore have no way of judging how accurate McDonald's portrayal is, and for a book like this, accuracy is overwhelmingly important. As with the previous books he's written, it feels right. It has a deep, immersive sense of verisimilitude; one can feel the heat, hear the traffic, and see the crowds of people. And the story is not told in reference to a European or American. Everyone in this story is either Turkish or Greek, and McDonald tries to tell their stories on their own terms within their own context. That said, it could be horribly wrong in specifics or in general, and I wouldn't have noticed.

Each of the city books has also played with a different theme of future technology that fits the way McDonald thinks that culture sees the future. For River of Gods, it was AIs. Here, it's nanotech: the new rising technology and a possible in-road for Turkey into the high-tech European economy. We see nanotech from several angles, including an audacious (although somewhat dubious) proposed personal storage device and (most memorably) a reconfigurable robot that's used by the boy with the heart condition to eavesdrop and explore. The sheer delight the boy takes in this robot, and the vicarious adventures it lets him have, make for great SF, even if the technology requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. (Not as much, sadly, as the same boy's heart condition treatment, which makes no sense whatsoever and seems to be a case of an author wedging a literary image into the book with some hand-waving.)

McDonald varies between good and excellent when writing short stories, which makes the mosaic novel a natural form for him. Each of the threads of the mosaic is tight, interesting, and well-characterized. McDonald is good at building character quickly, at pushing the reader into the life of a character and making their struggles and observations come alive. They don't, however, interact much until the end of the story, which sometimes gives the book a scattered feeling. At times, I wished I could read just one of the stories in isolation, focus on it to completion and then move to the next rather than having McDonald cut away. Only at times, though; in other places, the mosaic effect worked wonderfully, providing multiple angles and views on the same event and showing how common experience leads to different understandings.

I think one of the hardest challenges of this type of book is that the reader wants every viewpoint character to have a clear story arc and a satisfying ending. The more characters there are, the harder that is to pull off. River of Gods suffered because of this; several of my favorite characters didn't get satisfying stories. McDonald went with a smaller cast in Brasyl and therefore had fewer problems. Here, he's back to the large cast, and that means that a few of the stories trailed off rather than hitting a payoff I was hoping for.

While there is an overall plot that wraps together most (if not all) of the story threads at the end of the novel, even when they seem entirely unrelated, The Dervish House is a book to read for the atmosphere rather than the plot. McDonald is an evocative writer who excels at creating an immersive sense of place, and he does that as well here as in any of the three city books. The description of the bird that starts the novel is a beautiful piece of writing that's a sign of things to come. I had some problems with the cohesiveness and consistency of payoff, and I had trouble warming to all of the characters, but even with those problems this is a book worth reading. If you liked McDonald's previous city novels, seek this out. It's more of the same.

One final note on format, since unfortunately an ebook let me down again. I don't know if it's the publisher's fault or a flaw in the Kindle platform, but apparently this book could not be produced in an adequate multilingual font. Given that it makes extensive use of Turkish characters for names and some borrowed words, this is a problem. The letters ğ and ş are reproduced as poor-quality bitmap images embedded in words and are about twice the size as the surrounding letters in the font size that I normally read. This is remarkably annoying and significantly hurt my enjoyment of the book. It's a similar effect to reading a book littered with typos: the text kept forcing itself to my attention rather than flowing and letting me get immersed in the story. This by itself knocked a full point off my rating.

Ebooks have a lot of promise, but the technology is clearly not there yet. It's both sad and pathetic that I can reproduce characters more easily on my personal web pages than a major publisher can on the most popular ebook platform. This is the third time (in six books) that formatting problems have been a serious annoyance, although the first time that showed up in a book that wasn't free. If you're interested in reading this book, find a paper copy, or at least check that your electronic copy doesn't have this flaw.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-08-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21