Monday 29 August 2011

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House starts with a bang: a suicide bomber blows up her own head on a tram in Istanbul. The rest of the novel tells the stories of a wide variety of characters who either live or work in the Dervish House. One of the characters was a witness to the bombing, but the others are simply people who share a common geography.

It is a novel about many things: science fiction (nanotechnology is a big part of this novel, as are designer drugs), interconnectivity, myths, stories, history, Istanbul - above all, Istanbul. There is fascination in this novel - fascination with a city that squats right across a natural funnel for trade and ideas and peoples, that has a rich history and atmosphere unlike any other. The novel is deeply atmospheric, beautifully written, and captures Istanbul very well.

The characters, meanwhile, have different plots and stories. There's the little boy with a heart condition who explores the world through his robots and dreams of having big adventures - and who starts investigating the bombing and its aftermath. There's the old Greek professor of economics, a friend to the boy and a forgotten, sidelined academic, who tries to see the bigger picture, and who is asked to help out with a security think tank. There's the woman owning a gallery and antique shop who is asked to source a legendary relic for a million Euros - a relic that may just be a myth. There's her husband, a cocky trader on the stock market, dealing in options and doing exactly the sort of business deals that are currently on the brink of bringing capitalism to its knees. He's planning a major deal to smuggle (illegal) gas into Europe. Finally, there's the witness to the bombing, a man with a gruesome history, who starts seeing supernatural beings...

There are lots of other characters, drawn in vivid colours and compelling detail, in the story only for moments and gone again, or recurring. Ultimately, the plot lines do interweave and pull together in an exciting finale. Regarding the plotlines - they are thrilling and exciting, by and large, though some can be quite slow to build up momentum. The quest for the Mellified Man has something grandiose about it, and it powers the interest for much of the early parts of the novel, while other plotlines are slower to build up to their grand adventures. Some of the characters are less than likeable - but it is clear that the author admires them a lot. I found the cocky trader immensely annoying: a sleazy, slick bag of slime, and yet the writer seems to be rather sympathetic to him. The tomato girl / marketeer is, like the trader, a shallow, slick person, and similarly difficult to like. There is a pattern here. The child dreams of adventure, the adults in their youth dream of money and power, the old dream of the lives they did not lead... in flashbacks, we see the older people in their youth, and they dreamt of revolution, making them eminently more likeable even in their foolish years than those who just dream of money and status. There is grand adventure in the novel, and melancholy, and sadness, and joy, and a lot of capitalist greed and confident swaggering. There are ideas about technology and the future. There is religious fervour, too, in some sub plots...

It is a very good novel, a novel rich in ideas and emotions and atmosphere. I found it a very rewarding read and I would heartily recommend it to anyone.

Rating: 5/5

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