Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hugos 2011: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

Only twice in my life have I had any desire to visit Istanbul. The first time was during a Roman history course at University. The second time was just now, as I finished The Dervish House.

The Dervish House is about lots and lots of things. It's about economics, terrorism, religion, nano-technology, Istanbul, revolution, migrant communities, and history. It's about patterns, and choices. And most importantly, it's about a boy imprisoned by his heart condition, an ambitious young commodities trader, a Greek economics professor long since driven from academia, the owner of a gallery of religious artefacts and curios, a lost and broken young man, and a young woman trying to both escape from, and prove herself to, her family. 

Reading this book felt like learning. The good kind of learning, where you're exposed to interesting ideas and places, and pleasantly surprising little stories. The book is full of remembrances and flashbacks, which serve both to drive the plot forward and illuminate the characters. Each one feels like a lovely little story-package, enjoyable both for its role in the novel and as a fragment itself. The re-telling of the creation of the Mellified Man of Iskenderun, for example, is a piece of writing that will stay with me for a very long time. Just thinking about it makes me smile.

I think it is fair to say that this is a book that requires some work from the reader, and that may not be to everyone's taste. There's a lot of ideas to keep straight here. I said before that I think McDonald's writing is very information-dense, and The Dervish House is no different. It's important to add, though, that the book is about how the characters interact with those ideas -- this certainly is not the type of science fiction where ideas are more important than people.

If I had one criticism, it's that the ending felt a little too inevitable. Perhaps it was telegraphed a bit early. I didn't really have that wonderful moment, like in Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, when all the plot threads coalesced into a suddenly brilliant whole. But it's really a minor criticism -- once I got into it, I just wanted to keep reading and reading. It may not all have fit in my head, but I would have read this book in a weekend if I could.

The Dervish House is currently my vote for the Best Novel Hugo, absolutely. When I travel, I love to stay in a place long enough to get a feel for what it's like to live there. The Dervish House felt not only like travelling to Istanbul in 2027, but to the lives of six people quite unlike me. It made me feel smart, and engaged, and it made me happy.

1 comment:

  1. Huh. Wondering around the internet, as you do, and what do I find: Finch and The Dervish House reviewed together by Roz Kaveney in the Independent. Two of my absolute favourite books of the last few years. http://ind.pn/leh25q