Monday, July 25, 2011

Hugo Week: Ian McDonald's The Dervish House

The Dervish HouseWhile 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; and  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.