I’ve just finished Ian McDonald’s new novel, The Dervish House. I know what to expect from Ian McDonald: broad vistas, intricately imagined futures, poetic language that transports and delights, a blend of mysticism and science that thrills and moves. But no matter how much foreknowledge I bring to a new Ian McDonald, I am always, always startled and thrilled by the exciting, moving epic story I find inside.
The Dervish House is set in 2027 Istanbul, in a future in which Turkey and the Queen of Cities have moved into the EU, where “the sick man of Europe” has boomed again, the center of a new practical nanotech revolution that has high-achieving school-kids and high-flying commodities traders snorting vials of tailored nano to help them cope with their days. Meanwhile, snappily dressed power-brokers sport nanofiber suit that shifts and shimmers in a luxuriant display of wealth and might.
One Monday morning, a suicide bomber boards a tram, touches a jewel on a curious collar fastened around her throat, and blows her own head off, sending it through the tram’s roof, fountaining a geyser of blood over the morning commuters, but killing no one except the seemingly incompetent bomber.
This grisly episode sets off a chain of events that intertwines the lives of several characteristically odd and engaging Ian McDonald: a Greek experimental economist who fell into disrepute when he joined the 1980s radical movement and has clung to the fringes of Istanbul society ever since; a young, brilliant boy whose curious heart condition has made him a shut-in, forced to wear damping earplugs that cut him off from the world; a striving young woman from farm country who is determined to batter her way into the nanotech revolution; an antiques dealer who can find anyone; a commodities broker who is about to close the deal of the century; and a slacker with a grisly past who has been taken in by his brother and the neo-dervish order he has founded.
The story rips through the next five days, brilliantly imagining what a world of functional, consumer nano would mean for business, culture, faith, play and terrorism; painting a vivid picture of Istanbul as a gem of human society; and delighting with details of the marvels to be found there.
First among these is one of the story’s prominent McGuffins: the Mellified Man, a legendary mummy created by feeding someone honey until he dies, and them burying him in a sealed coffin filled with still more honey. The antibacterial properties of the honey preserve the cadaver even as they turn its flesh into a confection that is rumored to possess magical healing properties. It is one of these relics that the antiquarian is chasing, and her adventure threads through the lives of the large cast, leaving the story infused with mysticism and oddity.
This mysticism is heightened by the visions that haunt the people who were caught in the botched suicide blast: djinn and faeries and the mythical Green Man, filling Istanbul with prophets who can see into other realms that may or may not be there.
To read McDonald is to fall in love with a place and to become drunk with it (see this free sample from Dervish House for a taste). I you’ve never read him, you’re in for a treat. If you’re a fan like me, you’ll be delighted anew. What a wonderful, wonderful book.
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