When I gave Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven its perfect score a few weeks back, I was persuaded that no other speculative fiction work could possibly even come close to it in terms of quality. And yet, I knew full well that the ARC for Ian McDonald's The Dervish House was sitting on my desk, practically begging me to read it. And still I believed that Kay's latest would reign supreme as the best SFF book of 2010 -- at least in this house. The more fool me, I know. . .
Considering how much I loved River of Gods, Brasyl, and Cyberabad Days, I'm aware that I should have waited a bit longer before granting Under Heaven its crown. After all, every McDonald title I've read since the creation of the Hotlist ended up in my top reads of that year. Call it Canadian patriotism or whatever you like, but I really wanted Guy Gavriel Kay to finish in pole position at the end of 2010. Unfortunately, Ian McDonald had another think coming for me.
The Dervish House is without a doubt his best and most accessible science fiction novel to date. And to put it simply, it just blew my mind. Believe me, I did try to find some shortcomings and facets that left a little to be desired. All to no avail, of course. The Dervish House is about as good as it gets, folks. McDonald's past novels had already set the bar rather high, no question. But this one, at least for me, is as close to perfection as a book can get.
Here's the blurb:
It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone it seems is after a piece of Turkey. But the shock waves from this random act of twenty-first-century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square.
Welcome to the world of The Dervish House--the great, ancient, paradoxical city of Istanbul, divided like a human brain, in the great, ancient, equally paradoxical nation of Turkey. The year is 2027 and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union, a Europe that now runs from the Arran Islands to Ararat. Population pushing one hundred million, Istanbul swollen to fifteen million, Turkey is the largest, most populous, and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It's a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia, the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and central Asia. The Dervish House is seven days, six characters, three interconnected story strands, one central common core--the eponymous dervish house, a character in itself--that pins all these players together in a weave of intrigue, conflict, drama, and a ticking clock of a thriller.
Previous novels by McDonald took some time to get into, as the author used the early part of each of his work to build the groundwork for what was to come. Uncharacteristically, in The Dervish House McDonald's tale grabs hold of you from the get-go and won't let go till you reach the very end. I wasn't expecting the novel to make such a powerful impression right from the very first pages. But as soon as that woman detonates herself inside Tram 157 near Necatibey Cadessi, any hope I had of ever being able to put down this book evaporated immediately.
Seemingly effortlessly (don't know how he manages to do it, but McDonald's always makes this look easy), the author captured the essence of 21st century Turkey on countless levels. His evocative prose brings Istanbul to life in vivid fashion. His undeniable eye for details creates an imagery and an atmosphere that will delight and impress readers in myriad ways. As is the author's wont, the worldbuilding is superb. His depiction of a futuristic Turkey now part of the EU is even more memorable than his thrilling depictions of India and Brazil were. Whether its the country's political and social psyche, or mundane details such as what people are having for breakfast, McDonald's narrative makes you feel as though you're part of the action.
The Dervish House is not split into usual chapters. Instead, the story takes place during seven days, beginning with that fateful terrorist bus bombing. The tale unfolds through the eyes of six disparate characters, with the dervish house connecting these various plotlines together. I felt at first that the contrasting personalities would perhaps create a somewhat discordant whole, but Ian McDonald makes them all come together in a surprising manner. As was the case with River of Gods, when the multilayered storylines converge, the author's genius and his gift for well-crafted characterization shine through.
Though every character has his or her part to play in the overall story arc, Necdet, who was staring at the woman on the tram when she blew herself up, could be what one might consider the central character. Yet that's not entirely true, as the rest of the cast, even if they do so sometimes indirectly, plays as important a role in the greater scheme of things. The boy Can Durukan is particularly well-realized, and his relationship with Georgios Ferentinou showed that the author possesses a deft human touch. Still, Ayse Erkoç was, for me, probably the most interesting of the bunch. Another great aspect of The Dervish House is that every single character has a backstory, making them all three-dimensional protagonists. Hence, although the novel is a thought-provoking work of science fiction, it is nevertheless a character-driven read.
The pace, even though it is never a factor, is not always crisp. The narrative slows down considerably in the POV portions of both Adnan Sarioglu and Leyla Gültasli. And yet, when McDonald's reveals the true importance of each plotline and how it's connected to the overall story arc, that's when things get really interesting!
Perhaps because fundamentalist islamic terrorists and the emergence of Turkey and its possible accession to the European Union have made the news quite often these last few years, many of the themes found within the pages of The Dervish House feel more actual and better known and understood than those of McDonald's previous novels. Which is why I feel that The Dervish House, while showcasing Ian McDonald at his very best in terms of thought-provoking storytelling skills, just might be his most accessible work to date.
The Dervish House deserves the highest possible recommendation. If you only have money to buy a single scifi novel this year, this has to be it.