The OF Blog: Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

The white bird climbs above the city of Istanbul:  a stork, riding the rising air in a spiral of black-tipped wings.  A flare of the feathers; it wheels on the exhalations of twenty million people, one among ten thousand that have followed the invisible terrain of thermals from Africa to Europe, gliding one to the next, rising up from Lake Victoria and the Rift Valley, following the silver line of the Nile, across the Sinai and the Lebanon to the great quadrilateral of Asia Minor.  There the migration splits.  Some head north to the shores of the Black Sea, some east to Lake Van and the foothills of Ararat; but the greatest part flies west, across Anatolia to the glitter of the Bosphorus and beyond it, the breeding grounds of the Balkans and Central Europe.  In the autumn the stork will return to the wintering grounds in Africa, a round-trip of twenty thousand kilometres.  There has been a city on this strait for twenty-seven centuries, but the storks have been crossing twice a year for time only held by the memory of God. (p. 9)
This opening paragraph to Ian McDonald's third near-future city/country novel of the past five years, The Dervish House, may grab many readers' attentions.  This evocative paragraph illustrates, through the flight of wandering storks, the importance and centrality of the ancient city now known as Istanbul.  One might be pardoned if s/he wonders if this novel will be an ode to this ancient crossroads of traffic.  But this is a false start, one that, when compared to the quote below, may present a novel whose thematic elements do not add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts:

Necdet sees the woman's head explode.  He was only trying to avoid more direct, challenging eye contact with the young woman with the good cheekbones and the red-highlighted hair who had caught him looking in her direction three times.  He's not staring at her.  He's not a creep.  Necdet let his eyes unfocus and wander mildly across the passengers, wedged so politely together.  This is a new tram at a new time:  twenty minutes earlier, but the connections get him into work less than an hour late, thus not upsetting Mustafa, who hates having to act the boss.  So:  his tram-mates.  The boy and girl in their old-fashioned high-button blue school uniforms and white collars that Necdet thought they didn't make kids wear anymore.  They carried OhJeeWah Gumi backpacks and played insatiably with their ceptep phones.  The gum-chewing man staring out the window, his mastication amplified by his superb moustache.  Beside him the smart man of business and fashion scanning the sports news on his ceptep.  That purple velvet suit must be that new nanofabric that is cool in summer, warm in winter, and changes from silk to velvet at a touch.  The woman with the curl of silver hair straying over her brow from under her headscarf and the look of distant rue on her face.  She frees her right hand from the crowd, lifts it to touch the jewel at her throat.  And detonates her head.

The sound of an exploding skill is a deep bass boom that sucks every other sound into itself so that for a moment after the blast there is only a very pure silence. (p. 11)
This second quote, following immediately after a long expository introduction from which the first quote was chosen, is attention-grabbing.  There is no attempt to embellish the scene, other than to reveal who else was present.  A woman commits suicide, but was this a suicide bomber?

From here, a mystery begins, one that involves not just Necdet, but five other characters, who find themselves over the course of five days in April 2027 trying to come to grasp with certain, apparently nefarious, mysteries that are beginning to reveal themselves in the ancient Sublime Porte.  McDonald takes on an ambitious double narrative here.  First, he has crafted a narrative in which a slacker (Necdet), a reluctant, infirm nine year-old boy-turned-detective, a Greek businessman with a sordid past, a rogue energies trader, an arts dealer, and a nanotech marketing graduate have their lives intertwined for the five days leading up to the concluding events.  This alone could have easily taken up hundreds of pages of plot and character development, but to this McDonald adds the task of devising a near-future scenario in which Istanbul, portrayed here as approaching 20 million in population, with Turkey now an emerging power for the first time in centuries, becomes a major quasi-character in its own right.  Although several will find the results to be superb, I found several problems with the characters/city dual narratives.

For the most part, the characterizations are handled well.  McDonald is economical with his dialogue, allotting just enough space for his characters to develop and to forward the various subplots.  When the focus is strictly on character interactions, the story shines brightest and my interest then was at its peak.  However, mixed in with this was a ton of created backstory surrounding the city and country's development over the imagined past 17 years and that interrupted the flow of the narrative.

It is hard for authors to resist showing just how much forethought they put into developing their settings.  Taken separately, McDonald's vision of Istanbul and Turkey in 2027 as being the gateway to the Central Asian and Russian natural gas pipelines, as well as becoming one of the foremost nanotech developers, is at times quite plausible and almost always interesting.  But sometimes the setting creeps too much into the character-based narrative, with discussions of the city and its problems and accomplishments interrupting the flow of the plot development.  There were several times where I found myself noting that McDonald forced the issue, interjecting elements of Turkish history into interactions where the characters conceivably would not need to think or declare out loud so much about past (real and imagined) Turkish history.  It was distracting and at times detracted from the scenes.  Sometimes, not everything has to be explained and unfortunately, there were times when too much was added, clogging up the narrative flow.

These problems with the two narrative strands did not mean that I did not enjoy the story.  In fact, McDonald did a superb job twisting those various subplots together to create a conclusion that was better than the ones he provided in his last two novels, River of Gods and Brasyl.  As noted above, his characterizations were top-notch and the interactions were intriguing and well-handled.  It's just that at times, his vision of Istanbul overwhelmed these characters and their events, creating lacunae that lessened my overall enjoyment of the book.  The Dervish House is a very good novel, but its flaws keep it from being among the more enjoyable books that I have read this year.  However, it is a book that I would recommend for others to read.  Perhaps they will find themselves being more able to immerse themselves in the setting than I was able to achieve.

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