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Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

Sometimes I read a book and I immediately know what I have in front of me. I know it's good, or interesting, or none of those things. With The Dervish House by Ian McDonald I didn't have a clue for two hundred pages. I felt like Paris Hilton after a night out - confused about where I am, at a loss for how I got there, and just hoping to find a ride home with some dignity intact.

Several times in the early going I considered abandoning the book in favor of something more expedient. Unlike most science fiction work out there Dervish House isn't meant to be consumed in 48 hours. I found myself reading small chunks everywhere. A few pages in the bathroom, a sentence or two at stoplights, a couple chapters during an episode of Dora the Explorer, and before I knew it I was so engrossed I finished the last 200 pages in one sitting.

Dervish House follows several characters in the Queen of Cities, Istanbul, that live and work together in the dervish house in Adem Square. There's a boy detective, a retired economist, a treasure hunting wife, a futures trading husband, a nanotechnology start-up family, and a psychopath in the midst of a religious experience. Making the connection between these disparate individuals is the heart of the story moreso than the relatively straight forward terrorist plot that drives the narrative.

If I could ask McDonald one question it would be whether or not Turkey contributed any funds to the novel. I say this tongue in cheek, but Dervish House is a beautiful homage to one of most unique cities on earth.
"The glare of white neon never changes by day or by night. The Grand Bazaar keeps it own time, which is time not marked by the world's clocks or calendars."
Istanbul on my honeymoon in 2007.  Incredible city.
Passages like this bring the city to life. If I had to write an essay about McDonald's main character I would write about Istanbul. The city is a character unto itself and the story is a mere backdrop to the heaving nexus between east and west. I finished the novel and immediately asked my wife if we could go to Turkey again. She had been asleep for two hours, but I'm pretty sure the dismissive wave and grunt meant yes.

The novel is slow to develop leading to a frustrating read in the early going. McDonald throws a dozen balls into the air at the outset. Not only is he beginning numerous plot threads that are seemingly unrelated, he is also introducing the reader to a new culture full of its own language affectations and sordid history. Once McDonald finds a comfort level with these things the novel takes off and reads a little like high brow spy fiction.

Nominated for the Hugo Award last week, Dervish House is a worthy addition to that tradition. It is certainly one of the best novels I read in 2010. McDonald asks a lot his readers, but he rewards them with a beautiful novel that I believe will appeal to traditional readers in some ways more than lovers of genre fiction.

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