The Dervish House
First Published: 2011
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller, Literature
The Dervish House, from Ian McDonald, explores a well thought out near future of an exotic location and culture to most westerners, Istanbul Turkey. As a meeting point between western and eastern civilizations, Istanbul provides a natural location for the blending of different ideas and technology to generate new discoveries. However, the differences between religions and cultures also generate serious conflicts highlighted by frequent terrorist actions. With this as the background, The Dervish House follows a large cast of characters as they are swept up in the terrorist conflict and technological change.
The Dervish House is similar to two of McDonald’s more recent novels in that it brings science fiction to an exotic locale. The River of Gods explored a futuristic India and set an extremely high benchmark as it was rated one of the top science fictions novels of all time on this website. Brasyl explored both the past and future of Brazil but failed to achieve the lofty heights of its predecessor. I’m happy to report that The Dervish House comes close to matching the standards in storytelling set by The River of Gods.
The Dervish House succeeds most at immersing the reader in an exotic world filled with interesting characters and futuristic technology. McDonald describes the city and inhabitants of Istanbul in incredible detail as he imagines what the attitudes may be like in 25 years when Istanbul has joined the EU. However, the large cast of six main characters makes the beginning of this novel quite challenging to read as the novel bounces between the activities of all the different characters without any sense of plot. Eventually, the storylines begin to exhibit signs of a plot and slowly the stories converge.
The story begins with a bomb exploding on a tram. One storyline follows a very troubled young man who was right next to the blast. After his harrowing experience, he begins to have visions. The question is, are these visions from God, is he going crazy, or is something else going on. Another storyline follows a professor who becomes involved in a think tank in an attempt to predict what the terrorists will target next. He also becomes connected to a young boy with a strange ailment. The boy has an advanced robot which he uses for “boy detective” work that leads him directly to terrorists. Another storyline follows a husband who is a powerful commodities trader that has a plan to make a fortune. Meanwhile, his wife is an antiquities broker who takes on a commission to search out an invaluable and mythical “mellified man”. A final storyline follows a young woman who takes on a job to find funding for a research team that believes it has discovered a revolutionary technology that will transform the world.
It takes about half of the novel before most of the storylines really begin to gather momentum. This makes the first half of the novel a bit slow at times. However, the descriptions of this exotic city come alive with the confluence of eastern ideas meeting western ideas with both on a collision course with runaway technology developments. In addition, the characters are all well drawn and come from a variety of backgrounds. Once the storylines become clear and some action begins the pacing picks up dramatically. The tension ratchets up to the point where you won’t was to put this book down. And as the storylines converge, McDonald somehow successfully weaves satisfying resolutions to all the narratives.
The Dervish House transports readers to an exotic location and culture in a fantastically realized future where new technology offers the potential to revolutionize the world. The big problem is that the new technologies also offer more powerful tools for terrorists. For readers that are ready for a challenging science fiction thriller that combines high technology with eastern mysticism, I highly recommend The Dervish House.