The Dervish House

Turkey provides the setting for Ian McDonald's near-future science-fiction epic. It is the 'one SF book to read this year', says Gerard Brennan

Ian McDonald has found his niche. His past science fiction novels have included Chaga, set in Africa, River of Gods, set in India, and Brasyl, set in… well, Brazil. In each novel he posits the near-future of the country, building on extant culture and history to create that still-rare thing: a complex, convincing and non-Westernised SF world.

The novels have all been well-received. Critics and readers love McDonald, nominating him for numerous awards in the SF arena. In The Dervish House, McDonald sticks to his successful recipe, but breaks new ground on the setting: Istanbul, Turkey in 2027.

The eponymous Dervish House is a building in the heart of Istanbul, housing a number of apartments. McDonald follows the lives of the residents after a terrorist attack on one of the city’s trams. The very different characters split the narrative, preoccupations and motivations sending them spiralling away from each other. Only such a meticulously planned and expertly handled plot could make the moment of their inevitable recrossing of paths convincing.

Among the characters are an artificially deaf boy detective with marvellous toys, an aged economics professor with a politically militant past, a marketing career girl with self esteem issues, a money-hungry stock market overlord with a sexy gallery-owner wife, and, finally, a hallucinating Muslim without faith and his uber-religious brother. It is an eclectic mix.

The plot takes them from Indiana Jones-type artefact hunting to the blazing testosterone stock-trading of Wall Street and its imitators. Gas has replaced oil in this future, but it is no cleaner in terms of political impact and dirty deals.

McDonald’s books are epic in scale (do not expect a quick summer read when you crack this bad boy open) and almost intimidating in their intelligence. At the heart of all of them, however, particularly in the case of The Dervish House, is an excellent story driven by perfectly-formed and believable protagonists.

McDonald serves up a master class in writing that would give the literary elite the sweats. The novel doesn't rely on high concepts or geeky gimmicks to sell itself (although the ‘cepteps’ the characters wear are an enviable projection of smart-phone techno-joy). McDonald is, above all, a wordsmith.

Interestingly, since his novels rarely stray too far ahead of the present day, we’ve already caught up with his early novels. Sacrifice of Fools portrays a pretty bang-on version of Northern Ireland in the early 2000s (sans the aliens) and yet it was written in 1996.

If McDonald's observations and predictions about trends in technology, politics and sports in The Dervish House have even a grain of truth to them there are exciting times ahead. If you read one science fiction book this year, pick this one. McDonalds fans already have.