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The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

1/09/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Dervish House in the USA - or Buy The Dervish House in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 463 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08053-9.

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Ian McDonald is an award-winning British SF writer, often praised for his writing style as much as the subjects he writes about. 'The Dervish House' is his latest novel and continues to illustrate his interest in non-Western cultures, as shown in his award-winning recent novels 'River Of Gods' and 'Brasyl' amongst others.

The action of 'The Dervish House' takes place in Istanbul over a single week in April 2027. It opens with a suicide bomber blowing her own head off on a commuter tram in the city centre. The strange thing is that nobody other than the bomber herself is killed or injured. Standing on the same tram is Necdet, one of several main characters who live nearby in the long-abandoned Dervish House of the title. He is a former petty criminal who is trying to reform with the help of his brother, a religious zealot. Necdet was looking straight at the woman when she set off the explosives round her neck and is haunted by the image, so much so that he starts to see djinnis and other mythical and religious characters all around him. His brother welcomes this as a gift from God though some of his religious colleagues are not so sure.

The tram bombing is also witnessed by Can Durukan, a highly intelligent nine year-old boy who is condemned to an almost soundless existence within the confines of the Dervish House by a congenital heart condition. Any loud noise could give him a heart attack. To avoid this, his parents force him to wear fitted earplugs 24/7, leaving him almost deaf. Can lives his life vicariously through his BitBots, a sophisticated children's toy that imitates the nano-scale robots the police use to gather evidence at crime scenes. Can sends his BitBots over to the tram to see what happened but almost loses them when they spot an unmarked nanobot which responds by trying to destroy them. Having guided his BitBots to safety, Can, with all the naïve enthusiasm of any nine year-old, starts calling himself the Boy Detective as he devotes himself to finding out who was responsible for the tram bomb and why. His only help comes from the retired Greek economist who lives upstairs from him and who views Can as a surrogate grandson.

Meanwhile, Ayse Erkoc, who owns the religious curios shop on the ground floor of the Dervish House, is offered one million euro by a mysterious client if she can locate for him the Mellified Man. He is a legendary eighteenth century merchant who ended his days living only on a diet of honey and required that his body be interred in a sarcophagus filled with honey. The body has never been found but the legend is that should it be recovered, the smallest portion of the honeyed body will provide a miracle cure for any illness.

There are several more sub-plots than I've described here. McDonald lets each of these stories breathe, not rushing them to a premature conclusion but allowing them to flow naturally. The overall effect is magical, as he weaves the interlinked narratives around and through each other. By the end of the book, he brings the plot threads together in a conclusion that is both natural and unexpected.

The story is told with great stylistic flair. The language and the imagery carry you along throughout, making this a pleasure to read. I was fascinated by the level of authentic detail he included, which made me feel as if I really had some insight into a near-future version of Turkey, even though this is a country I have never visited. The alien nature of the setting, to my Western eyes, could have made it difficult to empathise with the characters but McDonald has created a cast of ordinary people that I found it easy to relate to.

The central SF idea in the book, which revolves around the use of nanotechnology for political and religious purposes, is an interesting one which McDonald explores to great effect.

'The Dervish House' is another fascinating and well-written novel from Ian McDonald. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing near future SF ideas explored in a non-Western setting.

Patrick Mahon

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