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The Dervish House (Gollancz S.F.) (edition 2011)

by Ian McDonald

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6693914,360 (3.98)146
HanGerg's review
I've been wanting to read this book for a quite some time, having been hugely impressed by the two previous Ian McDonald's I've read. This book is a bit more of a slow burner, and the plot takes a while to kick into top gear. When it does, it's very good, plus there's lots more on offer here than simply a thrilling finale. McDonald builds in layers of meaning and symbolism just like the layers of meaning in the Islamic art featuring micro-text that resolves into bigger words and symbols, that is a recurring motif in the story. The story is set in a thrillingly well realised, near-future Istanbul, which is packed with vivid sights, sounds and smells. There are also a host of memorable, well rounded characters with backstories, personality traits and plans for the future, all described in expert style. All this is standard McDonald. Somehow though, the various quests and journeys these characters are on didn't grab me as much as those in River of Gods, but that may just be a subjective view. I took something of a dislike to one of the central characters - Adnan, a strutting broker at a gas company, who along with his fellow young alpha-male friends has some kind of complicated scam going to sell gas in a way that will net them loads of untraceable money. It probably says a lot about me that I found this plot strand far more incomprehensible than the one involving the scientists that have created a whole new kind of nanotechnology that can store data in human DNA, making each human on Earth their own walking supercomputer. These are only a few of the many intriguing stories that are expertly woven together with a whole raft of other brilliant aspects, from men miraculously preserved in honey for hundreds of years and the secret name of God written in the architecture of the city, to robots that can endlessly reform into different shapes as they run through the streets. All of these imaginative flourishes and near-future inventions are grafted seemlessly onto the fictional recreation of a city that feels brilliantly realised and creates images and storylines that will live long in the memory. Perhaps not the absolute perfection I've come to expect from McDonald, but still a very worthwhile read. ( )
2 vote HanGerg | Apr 28, 2012 |
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A typically complexly plotted and dense sci fi entry from McDonald. The location is a major part of the story with wonderful descriptions and atmosphere. The characters are intriguing and interesting, and you can't imagine how these disparate people will eventually come together to resolve this futuristic thriller.

I loved it. ( )
1 vote majkia | Oct 26, 2014 |
The Dervish House is a novel of the sort that Ian McDonald is best known for: science fiction set in the mid-21st century in a technologically developed metropolitan culture outside of the self-regarding "First World." In this case, the setting is Istanbul: a city of both the East and the West, where the past and the future converge in terrorist espionage, nanotech-induced mysticism, quests for religious antiquities, and an Enron-style financial scandal, all over the course of a week at the climactic end of an oppressive summer heat.

As is typical for McDonald's novels, five or more principal characters feature in their own narrative threads that coexist in a shared system of events, only very gradually coming to cross and tie with each other. There are mature nostalgia and regret, adult striving and passion, and the adventures of a Boy Detective.

I had expected a lot from this book, having previously enjoyed other work by the author, and knowing that this was a recent and well-regarded accomplishment. I was not disappointed.
4 vote paradoxosalpha | Mar 31, 2014 |
Istanbul in the near future, 2027, with interlocking tales of six people who reside in a former dervish house: (1 & 2) wife Ayse an antiques dealer and husband Adnan a commodities trader, she seeking an illegal and possibly mythical artifact for a hefty fee, he scheming with work buddies to reroute a gas pipeline and buy low and sell high, (3) Leyla, a young woman from a rural town with the prospect of escaping via a marketing degree, connected by an aunt to a cousin’s startup company, which hands her the task of soliciting investment capital for DNA data storage technology, (4) Necdet, a young man not quite right in the head, taken in by his brother who is there to revive the religious community, (5) Can, a boy with a heart defect that is set off by loud noises so his parents make him wear sound-canceling ear devices, who passes the time with shape-changing bitbots, (6) Georgios, a retired economics professor, who hangs out in a teahouse reminiscing with fellow Greek expatriates and is recruited to participate in a government forum on terrorism and security.

The story begins with a bomb in a tram, and continues for five days of a heat wave and unfolding intrigue, as characters are caught up in or witness the event. The bomb is peculiar, apparently not intended to kill. Necdet, on the tram at the crucial moment, begins to have visions of djinn. Can sent a bitbot to take a look at the chaos out of curiosity, and happened upon a surveillance robot with a more serious agenda, which he reports to Georgios. This is a near future of nano-everything, smoothly interwoven not as gee-wiz but as an everyday thing, layered over history. I was confused much of the time, though the author helpfully had character conversations summarize episodes, which gave me enough of the plot to continue on. I’m not much for terrorism or schemes, so I focused on Can, Boy Detective, and his bitbots, and hoped things would turn out OK for Leyla. Which may not be what I was supposed to do. I’m sure I missed all sorts of subtleties and themes. Oh well. I’d try another by this author, now that I sort of know what I’m in for.

(read 2 Sep 2013)
  qebo | Sep 29, 2013 |
Not quite as good as River of Gods, bit too disjointed. ( )
  SChant | Apr 26, 2013 |
I'm not going to finish this. I've been trying to read it for 3 weeks. It's just not worth my time. I'm quitting it halfway. The dialogue is clunky, the prose is purple, the characters are uninteresting. For me, this is all setting and no substance. DNF.

Since Goodreads only allows me to choose "read, currently reading, want to read", I'm marking it as "read", but I only read to page 150. ( )
  DebbieBspinner | Apr 12, 2013 |
The writing was a little overdone, and there just wasn't anything pulling me in.
  JenneB | Apr 2, 2013 |

It's taken me quite a while to finish reading this novel. I came close to abandoning it a few times because I didn't see where it was going and - more particularly - I was having difficulty caring about the characters. However, it eventually started coming together. It even became a bit of a page turner and, surprisingly, I ended up caring about the characters more than I ever thought I could.

Set in Istanbul in the near future, The Dervish House centres on a number of people who live or work in a disused tekke, the dervish house of the title. The various threads of the narrative include a search for an archeological legend - a Mellified Man, a financial scam, a terrorist plot and attempts to find funding to develop a new technology. In addition, there's an isolated young boy, Can, who with the aid of his toy robots, turns detective. The plot also touches on Turkey's recent political history and its history of race relations.

Apart from Can's adventures, what I enjoyed most about this work is the depiction of Istanbul. The descriptions of the city are more interesting than most of the characters and much of the plot. I'm glad I read the novel, if for no other reason than it's reinforced my desire to travel to Turkey some time soon. That said, I doubt I'll be reading it again. ( )
  KimMR | Apr 2, 2013 |
an excellent read ( )
1 vote Vikz.Richards | Mar 31, 2013 |
I started out not at all sure I was going to like this one. I've read a few books in the past year that seem to have some commonalities, they are set in the near future and they are intricate and interesting and full of literary craft but they are also pretty fascinated with the perverse, the brutal, the grotesque, with cruelty and failure and stupidity among the predatory and the self destructive. Which fine, if that's what a writer wants to be fascinated with, more power to him, but its not for me. I just start to get bored and annoyed and feel like I'm being droned on at by an intellectualized version of a kid who likes to pull the wings off of flies.

For awhile I thought that's where this was going too. So I was feeling pretty dang squinty eyed about it. But no, it went in a different and much more interesting direction. There was a fantastic integration of futuristic elements, so seamless that they almost seemed not to be futuristic at all. The characters began to do interesting things instead of just lying about being defeated and nihilist, threads started to knit up with other threads, connections started to get made between different groups of individuals in complex and unexpected ways. Also there were toy robots, and really who can resist that? ( )
  bunwat | Mar 30, 2013 |
An excellently written book and a strong plot to support it. As they say, I didn't want it to end.

( )
  paulhoff | Jan 6, 2013 |
Set in Istanbul in the late 2020s, this highly imaginative story starts with a bang, then unfortunately slows down a lot as it begins introducing its many characters. It definitely picks back up again, though, and does a masterful job of weaving together the many storylines into an excellent ending. ( )
  wanack | Dec 17, 2012 |
I've been wanting to read this book for a quite some time, having been hugely impressed by the two previous Ian McDonald's I've read. This book is a bit more of a slow burner, and the plot takes a while to kick into top gear. When it does, it's very good, plus there's lots more on offer here than simply a thrilling finale. McDonald builds in layers of meaning and symbolism just like the layers of meaning in the Islamic art featuring micro-text that resolves into bigger words and symbols, that is a recurring motif in the story. The story is set in a thrillingly well realised, near-future Istanbul, which is packed with vivid sights, sounds and smells. There are also a host of memorable, well rounded characters with backstories, personality traits and plans for the future, all described in expert style. All this is standard McDonald. Somehow though, the various quests and journeys these characters are on didn't grab me as much as those in River of Gods, but that may just be a subjective view. I took something of a dislike to one of the central characters - Adnan, a strutting broker at a gas company, who along with his fellow young alpha-male friends has some kind of complicated scam going to sell gas in a way that will net them loads of untraceable money. It probably says a lot about me that I found this plot strand far more incomprehensible than the one involving the scientists that have created a whole new kind of nanotechnology that can store data in human DNA, making each human on Earth their own walking supercomputer. These are only a few of the many intriguing stories that are expertly woven together with a whole raft of other brilliant aspects, from men miraculously preserved in honey for hundreds of years and the secret name of God written in the architecture of the city, to robots that can endlessly reform into different shapes as they run through the streets. All of these imaginative flourishes and near-future inventions are grafted seemlessly onto the fictional recreation of a city that feels brilliantly realised and creates images and storylines that will live long in the memory. Perhaps not the absolute perfection I've come to expect from McDonald, but still a very worthwhile read. ( )
2 vote HanGerg | Apr 28, 2012 |
"A dark and perversely delicious fear gnaws Ayşe, the intellectual intoxication she experiences from opening a new manuscript or unwrapping an unseen miniature and knowing that she stands on the edge of the incomprehensible, that she holds in her hands a world and a way of thinking alien to her in every way. The past is another universe: a long dead sect drew its truths across whole cities for generations it could not imagine."

Ian McDonald's books have been touring the non-Western world for some time now. He seems to be on a mission to explore how various cultures might deal with near-future SF scenarios. This time, he fetches up in Turkey. McDonald doesn't just use the common trope of this nation's poised-between-Europe-and-Asia tension; he adds a tension between technology and faith, and another between progress and history. For much of the book the plot simmers away slowly, waiting until we've really gotten to know our cast of characters and how these tensions play out in each of them.

It's the characters that make this book: Ayşe Erkoç, power-dressing dealer in antiquities; Can Durukan, isolated boy with heart trouble and some very cool robots; Leyla Gültaşli, desperate to prove herself in the big city; Georgios Ferentinou, retired and broken professor of economics; Adnan Sarioğlu, master of the deal and lover of money; and Necdet Hasgüler, wastrel and psychopath. And dozens of others, each given care and time to breathe. Through them we also get a multi-faceted view of Istanbul. We learn about some of what this unique city has been through, and about how its people might respond to nanotechnology.

The SF is almost incidental, really. This is a novel about Istanbul, written by a man with an impressive ability to inhabit a huge variety of voices.

Take your time, listen to the voices, and enjoy. ( )
3 vote RoboSchro | Mar 31, 2012 |
Meh. slow and contrived co-incidence rules ok in future past Istanbul. Not really part of a series, but does contain at least one character from his other novels.

Never really got into this. The first half at least is tediously slow and confusing. Eventually you get a grip on most of the major characters and all their orbits coincide, picking up the pace a little bit, before it all ends. Unfortunately this a) very predictable, and b) feels excessively contrived. The characters all centre on the Dervish House of the title. It's an old building in Istanbul that has survived to the near future 2025 or so. It's never quite properly described, but seems to be surround half of a courtyard, and be sub-divided up into various units. A bunch of old Greek economic philosophers sit around and drink tea; a child with health problems plays with nano-tech robots; an artist runs a gallery; a secretary looks for work; and in a disused corner a layabout enjoys a quiet spliff with his brother. We follow these people in a confused and disjointed way through intermingled snapshots of their lives over a period of a week. At least the chronology is mostly continuous, (apart form a few reminiscences of the old Greek) but for at least the first third of th book it's very difficult to remember what background goes with what character.

In terms of plot there isn't really one per se, but a bunch of intermingles threads that vaguely resolve themselves. A suicide bomb causes the layabout to experience visions, the ill boy seems something unusual in the aftermath of the bomb, the old Greek takes this up with national security think tanks. The artist is commissioned to search for a legendary object and her husband attempts to run am economics scam with a bunch of his friends. Meanwhile the girl joins an nano-tech company looking for seed money to develop atomic scale nano. Even from this brief summary you can begin see how they all converge - except that there is no real reason for them to do so. None of the characters initially knows any of the others, and except for authorial influenced chance would have any reason to do so. The girl could have joined any number of start-ups, the economist was always an unlikely fit for a think tank, etc, etc.

The science part of it is fairly well done - no explanations - but some interesting thoughts on the role nano-tech may play int he future and how society will and won't change to it's presence. It makes great toys, although I was very surprised they weren't more widespread. And has been rapidly exploited by the forces of law and order. Other than that it has had remarkably little impact, which I suspect would not be the case. Many of the devices remain unexplained - a ceptep for instance. Some sort of cross between a laptop a phone and a wearable computer. I never quite worked out what it stood for. Auto driven cars was a better example that was well thought through. The politics never really made any sense - and was a background at best. I'm not quite sure why lingering Greek resentment over the divides between Muslim and Christian influence in Istanbul was included. It didn't had anything except pages, murkied the already unclear plot lines, and is likely to be inaccurate anyway what with the increasing rise of secularism in Europe.

Overall it was readable enough if you've the Patience to force through the first third, but ultimately whilst it was at times interesting, I was always ready to put it down and do something else - never the hallmark of a good book. ( )
  reading_fox | Mar 7, 2012 |
This is McDonald's third in his novels about developing cities in the future. The law of trilogies tell me that this will be his last in the genre for some time to come.
The Dervish house is set in Turkey which is at the heart of a nano tech revolution. River of gods was about AIs in India and Brasyl about Quantum in Brazil so I think he has got his bases covered. The plot deals with a few characters linked by a Dervish house and a bomb blast which turns out not to be one.
The thing with McDonald is that you know what you are going to get. You know that the prose is going to be bloody brilliant, the plotting is going to be virtuoso but he always manages to surprise. This one is no different.
There are passages of such staggering beauty, sections of such brilliance that they make the book worth reading all on their own. No one can meld philosophy and and an action sequence in a single breath the way he does. Also no one, no one writes a football game the way McDonald does. I said this in Brasyl and that seems to hold true here as well.
As always his descriptions of technology are spot on and eye openers. He has the uncanny ability to see how the greatest advances in technology will be used by the most conservative societies. He has that vision about how developing countries will interact with the future.
And what do you say about the characters. Wonderful, fully realized, vividly etched out by favorite just happens to be the Kebab master chef.(who albeit has an extremely minor role)
The Dervish House is an excellent book. A deserving awards nominee(and by my reckoning one of the best books I have read this year). ( )
1 vote kaipakartik | Sep 25, 2011 |
Excellent near-future scifi set in Istanbul, queen of cities. It starts with a terrorist attack on a tram, and goes on to mix the ultra modern with history and lots of different cultures in a way which I think of as typical of Istanbul (though it's not a city I know well and I've only been there once, so perhaps it's a romantic vision of the city). ( )
  annesadleir | Aug 14, 2011 |
The Dervish House has, for me, all the essential ingredients of a really good book – a clearly drawn, plausible, interesting setting, realistic, varied and sympathetic characters, exciting, well written stories, and a bit “extra” to “make you think”.

The book takes place over 5 very hot days in Istanbul, about 20 years in the future. This near future setting is very cleverly used, allowing some things, primarily communications and surveillance technology, to have changed (believably) and others, such as dilapidated housing in poorer parts of town, torturous commuting, and the nature of big football matches, not. (There is a particularly good description of some of the characters going to a big match.) McDonald is good at referring to developments but not belabouring them, just letting them exist, sometimes important to the plot, sometimes just incidental. He also understands that new technologies don’t suddenly drive out everything that came before (a failing I often find in science fiction), and that older technologies still have a role, especially among older people who might not be interested in “upgrading” to the latest thing. His hypothesized changes aren’t all technological, either, but include demographic, economic, political, environmental and, especially, religious/spiritual/philosophical changes, and this seems right. Every aspect of Istanbul’s history, geography and culture, past and present, public, private and hidden, technological and spiritual, physical and metaphysical, is involved one way or another. I really felt I “understood” this Istanbul, and would now love to re-visit the city at some point.

The characters – even minor ones, some of whom only appear once – are fully drawn individuals, with personalities and histories, in excess of what is needed to drive the plot. They are different from each other – the world-weary Greeks in the coffee shop do not speak or behave in the same way as the geeky technology start-up guys, who are different from the religious group, from the slick high finance guys, from the 9 year old boy, and so on. They have different views on society, they use technology differently, they react to events differently. I found I could visualize pretty much all of the many characters, which I can’t always do.

These characters are put into interesting situations, some of their own making, some not. There are six main story threads, told in parallel – without giving much away, these include an audacious plan to make a killing in the stock market, a high tech start-up trying to get backing, a retired professor trying to understand and predict terrorist activities, a search for a semi-mythical lost artefact, a personal and spiritual awakening, and a 9-year old boy tracking down bad guys. Each of these has some side stories associated with it, so it feels like there are many more stories in all. Every one of them is exciting, packed with detail, totally plausible within its context, and fun to follow.

Beyond all this, the book also seemed to me to be about information and knowledge, about connectivity, and about the human place in the world. There are quite a few references, overt or otherwise, to information – what constitutes it, how we get it, how we store it, how we transmit and share it, and how, no matter how high tech, it still takes a spark of human genius, an “aha” moment, to see the patterns and the potential to turn information into knowledge. Characters get a lot of information from computers, but also from maps, books, discussions with others, “old wives’” tales, family traditions, spiritual beings and hidden messages built into the very fabric of the city itself. Similarly, there are many references to “connectivity”, both physical – tram lines connecting neighborhoods, the bridge connecting the two halves of the city (which McDonald likens to the two halves of the brain, with the river Bosphorus as the synapse – a connection which requires a spark), networks of underground tunnels and secret waterways, pipelines; and social/symbolic – wedding rings, family traditions and ties, handshakes, contracts.

Finally, there is the issue of “scale”. The universe is so huge, and contains so much and so many varied elements, that it can be hard for humans to see where they fit in. Yet, at the same time, very small things can contain so much. Computer chips are an obvious example, but we also get illuminating discussions about DNA, calligraphy, and string theory. I think I’ll end with a quote that sums this up for me, and which I think also applies nicely to writing and, at least sometimes, to reading:
“Big, little, little, big. How do I fit with this? How do I see the infinitesimally small and the inconceivably vast at the same time, in the same vision?” ( )
13 vote JanetinLondon | Aug 3, 2011 |
While the core story of The Dervish House spans only a few days in the year 2027 the tale incorporates legend, myth, history, politics and religion spanning centuries, if not millennia. Its themes include unrequited love, betrayal, revolution, cultural sexism, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, prejudice, fraudulent commodity trading, clashing cultures, the isolation of the individual, and the day-to-day reality facing people on the streets of Istanbul.

Ian McDonald tells his intricate story through the lives of six individuals who are linked in various ways to an ancient wooden tekke (a building designed specifically for gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood) located in Istanbul, the Dervish house of the title. This building has survived centuries and in 2027 contains several dwellings and an antique dealership.

The action starts on the third page with a suicide bomber detonating her explosive device on a tram. We are then treated to how this terrorist act affects each of the six characters; the teenager on the tram who survives the explosion but is traumatised by his experience; a young marketing graduate whose journey to her important job interview is disrupted by the ensuing traffic chaos; the nine-year-old boy, confined to his apartment and a world of silence by a rare heart condition; the retired Greek economist whose past has brought him into conflict with the authorities; a dealer in ancient artefacts who receives an offer she cannot refuse; the yuppie commodity dealer with plans for a killing that will set him up for life.

The Istanbul of McDonald’s novel is in a Turkey that has become part of the European Union, and is experiencing an economic boom based on great advances in nanotechnology and its applications. Turkey’s strategic location at the meeting point of Europe and Asia plays a big part in the economic success of the area, and also in the potential targeting of its ancient capital city by terrorist groups wishing to make their mark.

Does Ian McDonald succeed in producing a good book with so many diverse strands and elements?

In my opinion, yes, he does.

His characters are full and rounded. Their actions are rational and coherent in the context of the story and the situations in which they find themselves. Family backgrounds and personal experiences are presented and prove consistent with how the individuals are portrayed.

The Science Fiction elements in the story, nanotechnology and robotics, are critical to this near-future tale, but they have not been allowed to push character development or plot into the shade. This novel is an excellent political techno-thriller with some heart-touching romance, and is populated with characters who have everyday lives and real concerns. It deals with a wide range of issues pertinent to today’s global reality, and deals with them in a historically accurate context.

I learned a lot about Turkey’s history from this book, and have been prompted to read more about this fascinating and turbulent part of the world.

This was a book that I enjoyed immensely. ( )
  pgmcc | Jul 16, 2011 |
This isn't a particularly easy book to read if you come in with the expectation that this will be a near-future science fiction thriller. Of course, it is exactly that. However, after the opening pages in which a suicide bomber targets a tram, McDonald gets there rather slowly. He spins up five distinct story lines that have no clear relationship to each other, advancing each in a round-robin fashion until you, like some of the characters, begin to discern patterns and connections in the mist. If you're demanding slam-bang action from the get go, you might want to look elsewhere.

However, I think it is well worth the wait. McDonald lets two story lines carry the weight of what makes this science fiction—breakthroughs in nanotechnology—and uses the others to give us a rich image of his world. To say the story is set in Istanbul is to understate everything; the city is as much a character in the story as any of the half-dozen human protagonists. Adnan, the brash commodities trader's, story shows us the modern Istanbul sitting astride, both physically and psychically, the intersection between Europe and Asia. As we follow Ayşe, the antiquities dealer, through the city in her quest for an artifact we encounter the Ottoman world of Sufi mystics and Sephardic microcalligraphers. Necdet's story draws in the push of Islam, while Georgios' exposes the intolerant underbelly of religious and national persecutions and purges.

Without all of this, it would have been just another terrorist thriller. With it, it became a rich and absorbing story.

It is, however, one that requires some attention. It has the usual challenges of reading a book where multiple, seemingly unrelated, story lines are forcing you to juggle narratives. And these stories are dense, full of asides to explain a bit of history or a piece of technology and flashbacks to give some insight into a character. Further, if you're not familiar with Turkish names (as I was not), several in the story seem rather similar and evoke that "now, who is this again?" lapse until you get them firmly embedded in your mind.

Yet worth it: complex, evocative, absorbing...deserving of the award nominations. ( )
15 vote TadAD | May 29, 2011 |
I enjoyed the book but almost put it down during the first half. It was rather slow & more unnecessarily detailed than I thought appropriate. I was put off by a pronunciation guide at the beginning. I don't like such things or books where it is necessary. I did finish. Skimming helped. I thought the last half was more enjoyable. ( )
  gsmattingly | May 27, 2011 |
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