Pyr, 2010, 358 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-61614-204-9
I was about to begin this review by writing that I didn’t know when Ian McDonald went from “an uneven writer” to “buy-on-sight” in my reviewer’s mind, but that’s not true: I happened sometime in 2005 during my reading of River of Gods, a novel that has since gone on to become a minor SF classic of the last decade. River of Gods took MacDonald’s interest for non-western cultures and combined it with a more disciplined reader-friendly approach than many of his more experimental novels. Taking place in future India, the result was also billed as the first in a loose thematic “emerging superpowers” trilogy. Brasyl followed in 2007 by doing justice to the South American country, and now The Dervish House takes on the growing importance of Turkey as a bridge between Europe and Asia.
From the novel’s first moments, we’re thrown into near-future Istanbul, during a torrid week in which six characters will see their entire lives change. Through McDonald’s sure-footed narration (which begins with a literal bird’s eye view of the city), we’re introduced to the six characters and subplots that will form the strands of the novel’s plot. It’s obvious from the get-go that MacDonald has done his research, and that he’s able to weave it into a compelling number of narratives. Before long, we’re asked to care about emerging nanotechnology, corporate malfeasance, century-old legends, terrorism and everything else in the characters’ lives. MacDonald seems equally at ease telling honey-infused fables or describing how a corporation can be shut down by the state. The Dervish House is a novel that’s wider than it is deep, and it’s this variety of mood, styles, stories and characters that make up most of the book’s interest.
After the stylistic and subject matter pyrotechnics of Brasyl, The Dervish House feels quite a bit more grounded in reality. Turkey, after all, is not Brazil, and MacDonald’s stylistic approach tries to be appropriate to the Turkish future he’s describing. (The Dervish House isn’t about plot as much as it’s about setting.) So it is that The Dervish House shows a country trying to embrace both a proud tradition and the possibilities offered by new technologies. Istanbul not only bridges two continents, it acts as a passage from the past to the future.
This being said, my praise comes with a few slight caveats. For one thing, the unconnected six-strand narrative means that not all sequences are equally interesting –a number of readers will find themselves flipping impatiently through some passages while they await the next one to interest them. (More than once, I found myself waiting to go back to the art-dealer’s quest to find the possibly-mythical Mellified Man.) I also wonder if the broad nature of the novel makes it more difficult to follow than one that focuses on a strong plot line. Not every reader is going to react as positively to a novel that features a city more prominently than human characters, and some SF fans will be disappointed at the novel’s low-octane technological speculations. By taking on a near-future world dealing with the first practical applications of nanotechnology, MacDonald reins in his extrapolations and tries to ground them to a believable reality: it does feels like a mild let-down after the strong-AI speculations of River of Gods and the wild parallel universes of Brasyl.
Yet the result in an impressive entry in a bibliography that only seems to become stronger with time. MacDonald has, in-between River of Gods and this most recent novel, re-established himself as one of the most interesting SF writer currently working. The Dervish House is a prototypical Big Science Fiction novel: Dense, well-researched, well-written and intellectually hefty. It’s a good example of the kind of worldwide horizons the genre has taken on over the past decade, and not even its built-in flaws can distract pundits from affirming that it’s one of the best novels of the year. It got a well-deserved Hugo Nomination and outclasses the other novels on the ballot. Few “Best-SF books of 2010” lists won’t include this novel.