May 27, 2020

Review: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

One of our fondest stations during our military years was Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  Being at the cultural and temporal crossroads of Asia and Europe, Turkey stands between ancient and modern civilization. It seems that every conqueror and army has at one time or another marched across its jagged terrain. Heck, politics and war was what brought me there as a young buck sergeant. Incirlik is positioned just outside the city of Adana not far from where Alexander’s armies once passed and fought. In Turkey, 10th century meets the 20th, with American made F-16s screaming overhead as shepherds tend to their flocks as they have for millennia.

Thus is was with great fascination that I dug in to my advance reading copy of Ian McDonalds’ The Dervish House out from Pyr books next month. Long time fans of Mr. McDonald and this site will remember our review of Cyberabad Days, a collection of tales from a near futuristic Indian subcontinent. Newcomers will even recall last week’s review of Mr. McDonald’s Ares Express, by our ace Sci-Fi reviewer Sabrina… should we formally declare this to be Ian McDonald appreciation month?

Mr. McDonald has a knack for painting a near future world that is both convincing and compelling, a rarity worthy of Frank Herbert or J.R. Tolkien. You are totally drawn in as this Istanbul of the year 2027 unfolds in a saga worthy of the Blade Runner tradition of anti-utopia fame. But as it always is the case in Turkey, the ultra-modern must give way to the ancient undercurrent of superstition and tradition. The Dervish House follows the residents of a building complex as events unfold in the city that may have worldwide repercussions. The drama is layered in day- by-day chapters which cover a stretch of one Monday to Friday work week. Turkey has become even more vital as a center for commerce in a world that trades in everything from gas and petroleum to information and carbon credits. Mr. McDonald is also certainly steeped in ancient medieval culture and lore… ever hear of the legendary Mellified Man? It was certainly a new one on us, as this ancient mummy and the trail of its search becomes central to the plot line.

Although The Dervish House is science fiction in the broadest sense, one could easily approach it as a mystery thriller, that is, with robot drones and cybernetic implants. Mr. McDonald’s futuristic Istanbul reminds us of the complex underplay of European meets Middle Eastern politics, and why the term Byzantine entered our lexicon in the first place. You can almost feel the oppressive heat and smell the spice bazaars down those ancient narrow cobble stone streets… just watch out for that patrol drone whizzing by!

The Dervish House also does a wonderful job in capturing the paradoxes that make up modern (and future) Turkey. Mr. MacDonald is an expert wordsmith and raises the bar in the Sci-Fi genre to a whole new plateau. Either The Dervish House or Cyberabad Days would make for excellent and off-beat reading as one backpacked through the respective regions…

The very term dervish refers to the spinning mystics based out of Konya. The very concept of mysticism and modern technology is expertly woven into the tale, as jinni and spirits prowl to collective psyche of the characters in this high tech cyber thriller.

Do check out The Dervish House and be sure if you haven’t already to catch Cyberabad Days, which was given a Special Citation for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. One story, Vishnu and the Cat Circus, was also nominated for a Hugo in the best novella category, and appeared in the 27th Annual Edition of The Year’s Best in Science Fiction. What’s next; a high-tech Thailand? Now, that I’d love to see…