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Dervish House
Ian McDonald
Gollancz hardcover �18.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

This was my first time reading Ian McDonald; he's an author whose reputation precedes him, so my expectations were high - and I'm pleased to say they were more than met. To read The Dervish House is to be plunged into a dense, teeming portrait of five days in the life of Istanbul in 2027. McDonald begins this novel with a beautiful, exhilarating sequence for which the term 'cinematic' is wholly inadequate: a stork flies above Istanbul as part of a vast flock, then we swoop down into the city itself, and a panorama of noise and bustle, before alighting on a train, where a suicide bomber detonates her own head, but claims no other lives.

The rest of the story follows six protagonists, who live in or near the dervish house of the title. Necdet Hasguler is a passenger on the train, who later begins to have visions of djinn. Nine-year-old Can Durukan, whose heart conditions means he must be shielded from noise, interacts with the world through his BitBots, which can reshape themselves into a number of animal forms. Georgios Ferentinou, a Greek academic, now retired, runs a 'terror market', which trades in the likelihood of particular events occurring. Marketing graduate Leyla G�ltaşli, who misses one job interview but then lands a role with a company working on an experimental technology that could use 'junk DNA' to make computers of every cell in the human body. Adnan Sarioğlu is a financier with a plan to make some money for himself and his friends through espionage. Finally, Adnan's wife Ayşe Erko� is a gallery owner who is commissioned to find a fabled 'mellified man', the corpse of man who ate himself to death with honey, which is reputed to have remarkable healing properties.

As should be apparent just from that last paragraph, there's a lot going on in The Dervish House, and it is not easy to grasp in its entirety. But that, I think, is emblematic of what's perhaps the main theme of the novel: the idea of systems and patterns that lie beneath and around what we observe at the human scale and which might offer power to those able to master them. Examples of such patterns and systems abound in the book, from the stock market which Adnan seeks to manipulate to the webs of chance and causation which have been the life's work of Georgios, to the letters hidden in the architecture of the city, that Ayşe investigates during her research, and which (it is said) spell out the secret name of God.

Istanbul itself is depicted as an entity beyond its characters, the 'queen of cities' that will "endure as long as human hearts beat upon the earth"; and the dervish house may be seen as something similar in microcosm - a building that existed long before its current inhabitants, and that will most probably out-last them. The residents of the dervish house are physically within a structure greater than them, just as the structure of society, and the events taking place within it, are greater than their individual agency.

This points to another aspect of the novel: its plot, whose structure also reflects that idea of people being part of larger systems. Initially, the narrative appears a forest of subplots, and it's only gradually that a focus for the plot (the reason behind the initial train bombing) emerges - and, even then, there's a strong sense of its remaining one thread in the novel's broader tapestry (which, incidentally, is not meant to suggest that McDonald doesn't drive that plot strand forward with pace when needs be - he certainly does). Likewise, it is clear that the five days chronicled in The Dervish House are really just a snapshot, and that these characters' stories will continue to unfold beyond the final page.

The Dervish House is a novel which integrates its theme in so many different ways, then combines that with beautiful prose and a rich, involving narrative. It must surely stand as one of the year's most significant works of science fiction.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

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