Last year, I picked up Ian McDonald's fantastic science fiction novel River of Gods and loved his take on an India of the future. With his latest book, The Dervish House, McDonald relocates to Turkey of 2027. Rarely do I come across a book that absolutely floors me, and where River of Gods really impressed me, The Dervish House completely bowled me over with its interconnecting storylines, fantastic prose and wonderful characters.
Set in Istanbul, the book starts off with a literal bang as a suicide bomber blows her head off. The only casualty, the bomber seems to have failed, and the attack starts off a week that sees a heat wave over the city. There are five separate story lines to keep track of throughout the book: Can, a young boy with a heart condition who's treatment leaves him deafened and sequestered away at home, Georgios Ferentinou, a retired professor of experimental economics, who sees danger in the growing nanotechnology revolution, Ayşe, an arts dealer set off on a quest to find a legendary Mellified Man, Yasar Ceylan, a businessman working to build a start-up nanotech firm that has the potential to revolutionize civilization and Necdet, a former drug addict who sees a woman blow her head off and begins having strange visions around him. Together, these stories interlock over the course of a week.
The principle innovation here in McDonald's world is nanotechnology (where in River of Gods, it was Artificial Intelligences), and while this is clearly a futuristic world, it remains firmly grounded in what's likely one of the more realistic science fiction stories that I've read thus far: the rules are still the same. Throughout, McDonald covers a lot of territory: grey goo scenarios, market manipulation, fundamentalism and mysteries. Istanbul, it would seem, is the perfect location for such a story, with an ancient history behind it, helping to set up a juxtaposition between the future and the past.
In particular, I was blown away by the vivid nature of the book. Like his other book, I had to take my time with this, getting into the right mindset, and absorbing the story as it came along. The payoff is incredible: entire sections come across fully realized, and I couldn't help but wonder what a film adaptation would look like (and I would absolutely love to see this film translated into a motion picture someday). While it’s dense and occasionally wanders (there are a couple of plot points that help to support, but only just) the book is rich in detail and in its prose. There are only a couple of books out there that I've loved for the same reasons: Suzanne Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell comes to mind, as does J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Comparing these books is a non-starter (I’m not saying that this is better or worse than any of those), but coming away from this story left me with a similar impression: I got quite a bit out of this book, on all levels.
Of all the stories that the book goes through, the two that hit me the most was Can and Ayşe’s own story arcs. Can, armed with a modular robotic toy that can take several shapes (Bird, Snake, Rat and Monkey), fancies himself as a Boy Detective, and from the safety of his home, he attempts to piece together the bombing that his witnessed through his robot, uncovering clues and going after Necdet after the man is kidnapped. This storyline shone above all, and Can is possibly catapulted himself to become one of my favorite fictional characters – masterfully crafted and characterized, McDonald does everything right with his storyline, capturing the enthusiasm, optimism and creativity of a young boy with an impressive imagination.
Ayşe’s storyline is also an impressive one, as she’s tasked with tracking down a Mellified Man – a mummy preserved in honey, used for healing – This is a real legend, but it’s unclear as to whether there’s actually any basis in truth for it. Ayşe takes us throughout the city and through parts of its history on her search, reminding me a little of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, at points, abit one where the characters work off the books and with fewer Nazis.
The other storylines are all important, on a number of locations, but none struck me quite the same way as the aforementioned do. But, as a whole, the weave together an interesting book that is rooted in reality, and gets a lot of things dead on in conceptualization, particularly when it comes to fundamentalism and terrorism. McDonald appears to realize that the conflict between fundamentalism and a liberal society are political issues that will continue onwards far into the future, but also understands the downsides of terrorism: killing people typically turns people against one’s cause, and the world presented here seems a bit more peaceful with that realization, although the goals might still be in the same place. One of the plots involves the distribution of Nano-agents to a larger population through gas pipelines, agents that will effectively turn people into fundamentalists. It’s a frightening scenario, one that brings up some questions: can faith be imbued in someone artificially? The book doesn't quite go on to use that more than a plot point, but its existence that is just hinted on is interesting, and McDonald steers clear of delving too much into the theoretical, leaving that up to the readers and the character’s own speculations.
At the end of the book, I was reluctant to put it away on the shelf: The Dervish House was easily one of the best books that I’ve read in the past year, up there with last year’s favorite reads: The City and The City by China Mieville, and Horns by Joe Hill. If I’d finished a month earlier, it would have been a grand way to round out 2010. Instead, it’s set an incredibly high bar for 2011 - not a bad way to start the year.