Ian McDonald's DERVISH HOUSE, superb novel of the mystical nano future of Istanbul

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.

The Dervish House

Free sample


  1. I visited Istanbul recently and was charmed by the city and its people. I will definitely check out this book.

  2. I agree totally with Cory’s analysis. This is a fantastic book and one that should be a contender for Nebula and Hugo awards next year.

  3. 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

    Lacks characters.


  4. I recently read Desolation Road (and have Ares Express queued up on my nightstand). Beautiful work, like The Martian Chronicles spliced together with A Hundred years of Solitude. This needs to go on my reading list as well.

  5. Wow, sounds marvellous – might even blast me out of my no-reading, internet-addicted sub-sub self of the last few years.
    Reading makes life deeper. Better. Cooler.

  6. I’ve been a fan since DESOLATION ROAD and I’d put the duology of CHAGA & KIRINYA right up there next to HYPERION & FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons [Chaga here in the States was released as Evolution’s Shore. Was Kirinya ever released here in the States?]. So I’ve been along for the ride, so to speak, since the beginning.

    As soon as my deposit posted at my bank I ran out last Tuesday and bought THE DERVISH HOUSE and I also bought KRAKEN by China Miéville.

    Can’t wait to read both these books.

    1. @dhalgren

      No AFAIK, ‘Kirinya’ was never released in the USA. There is also another spin-off of this sequence, the rather excellent novella, ‘Tendeleo’s Story’ which came from small press, PS, in the UK, and then was bundled with three other novellas (by Peter Hamilton, Paul McAuley and Stephen Baxter) in the collections ‘Futures’. Worth getting, if you haven’t already.

  7. I lived in Istanbul a few years ago and I’m really curious to see how such a complicated, gorgeous city is extrapolated in an sf novel. Great recommendation!

  8. Sounds effing awesome. I’ve been meaning to catch up with his last one, and now this!

  9. I’ve been reading him since Damnation Alley and Out on Blue Six were brand new.

    Heartily seconded.

    Ian MacDonald is always time well spent.

  10. I can’t even begin to describe how awesome Ian McDonald is. I’ve been a fan since I first read Desolation Road in highschool, when it first came out. I would LOVE to see Out on Blue Six reissued. Love? Hell, I’d KILL to see it reissued.

  11. Heartily recommended. Brasyl and River of Gods blew my mind and drew me towards writing from other cultures. Agree with the above comment about Desolation Road, wonderful piece of writing.

    Chuk, this should be out everywhere by now.


  12. Great review Cory! I just finished Dervish House and it’s an amazing book. Ian is here teaching at Clarion West this week, brilliantly I might add, and will be reading tonight at the University Book Store in Seattle at 7PM. Cheers; Les

    Tuesday • July 27 • 7pm
    Clarion West presents: Ian McDonald
    The Dervish House (PYR)
    Reading & Book Signing
    U District store

    Ian McDonald uses fiction with a cyberpunk edge to look at the contradictions of colonialism. In The Dervish House, he explores the way EU membership might affect the ancient culture of Turkey. In a carbon conscious 2027, Turkey is a flashpoint for global intrigue and pandemic terrorism.

  13. Available in Kindle Store for $1.99 as part of “Sunshine Deals” through June 15 2011

Comments are closed.