Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

We live in an era when SF novels like The Dervish House -- complex, immersive stories with many characters, set in a distinctive foreign culture and the near future, both crisply defined -- are no longer amazing or surprising; they're just another one of the fabulous things that modern SF can do. Ian McDonald has been particularly active in this area in recent years, with works such as Brasyl and River of Gods -- he has a real knack for writing about real people in the context of their real-world cultures, translated through the lens of a decade or three of additional future shock to contend with.

So I want to say that it's a magnificent achievement, full of brilliantly-realized characters and set in a unique landscape, with multiple intertwined plot threads that play off each other over the course of one hot week in 2029 Istanbul, leading up to a mesmerizing and thrilling conclusion. (It's what I would say, in fact, if I were responsible for marketing this book.) But it's not precisely true to my experience of reading: none of the characters really came fully to life for me early on, and I kept forgetting who some of them were until I got about halfway through the novel. The plot wandered around for quite a while, its several strands mostly unified because they each involved people living in the old Dervish House of the title (something like an abandoned Muslim monastery, I gather), and none of them were as compelling as I would have wished. McDonald's writing is excellent, but, sometimes, perhaps a little too self-consciously excellent, reveling in its own texture and bravura moments rather than telling its story -- the opening is a particularly egregious example of that; if you can read through the first two pages without wincing, you'll be able to read The Dervish House and enjoy it.

It does all come together in the end, though, and The Dervish House is far from the first novel saved by a big ending -- all of those plot stands and characters do come together for the climax, and lots of minor points that McDonald has strewn through the earlier pages become suddenly both very important and crystal clear. And we can forgive a novel a lot when it sticks the landing, which Dervish House undoubtedly does. I might not have nominated it for the Hugo -- I didn't read it in time, and I neglected to nominate this year in any case -- but it's the kind of novel that should be nominated, a big, smart novel that thinks about where the whole world is going in the near future and tells a strong story out of that thinking. I wish I had liked it better, but I wish that about a lot of things.

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