THE DERVISH HOUSE by Ian McDonald

Did you ever read a book just because you liked the cover?  Yeah, me, too.  That is why I sometimes comment on the cover, especially those I think are awful, or cheesy or didn’t fit either the quality of the writing or the atmosphere of the work.  Well, here is a book I started to read because of the cover.

It is set in 2027 in Istambul, the Queen of Cities.  Good start.  Lots of robots, and especially nanobots and the police use swarms of them for surveillance and crowd control.

But the problem for me is that it is set in Istambul.  With all that entails, which is lots of references to things I have no knowledge of, lots of Turkish words tossed in, but the atmosphere!  The Atmosphere!  Really great atmosphere building, and gives us the feel of this ancient city, with its ancient neighborhoods and its ultra modern sections, its diverse population of Turks, Greeks, indigenous outer tribes, Europeans.

It stars the Dervish House, perhaps the oldest all wooden monasteries of the ancient dervishes, now profaned and turned into a hodgepodge of apartments and shops.  Everything that happens revolves around the Dervish House and its inhabitants and neighbors.

It features 8 main characters, and each chapter alternates character perspectives.

  • Necdet, an underachieving pothead who is on the bombed bus and subsequently sees djinn while experiencing a confusing religious awakening.
  • Can Durukan, a homebound boy with Long QT syndrome, who feels the vibrations of the distant blast. He sets his monkey-bot to investigate the scene and stumbles onto some dangerous clues.
  • Georgios Ferentinou, member of the Greek minority and retired experimental economist. Georgios is mentor to young Can, and participates in an intellectual think tank tasked to anticipate future terrorist plots. He is also a member of a group of older Greek men who frequent the neighborhood tea house.
  • Adnan Sarioğlu, a scheming big money trader who, along with his “Ultralord” buddies, devises a scam to sell tainted gas from Iran to his corrupt investors.
  • Ayşe Erkoç, wife of Adnan, and atheist curator of an upscale religious artifact shop, which is located near the dervish house. A mysterious buyer entices Ayse to locate the legendary mellified man.
    Leyla Gültaşli, a recent marketing graduate whose big interview is thwarted by the aftermath of the bomb. A distant cousin offers her a position in his experimental nanotech company, the success of which is threatened by a contract set upon the lost half of a miniature Koran.

I found it confusing learning about the characters, and keeping them straight until I printed out a list of them, partly I think because of the ‘foreign’ names, and partly because there are two main threads:

(1) the terrorist bombing on a tram on which Necdet was a passenger.  He watches while a woman touches her necklace and her head explodes.  Somehow, he escapes being killed, but begins to experience what seem to be hallucinations, djinn, (are supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology) and then the green god appears to him and offers advice and commentary.  He also sees a karin, the mirror image in the earth of people and he can now make predictions.  His brother has set himself up in their Dervish House quarters as a community judge and now he sees his brother as a kind of holy person because of the visions.

Ten-year-old Cam with Long QT syndrome (a heart rhythm condition that can potentially cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. These rapid heartbeats might trigger a sudden fainting spell or seizure. In some cases, the heart can beat erratically for so long that it causes sudden death), has been treated with earplugs that deadened all sound, so that sudden noises do not trigger a seizure and possibly death.  He is a smart kid with a nanobot system that he controls from his computer and tablet, that is a swarm of nanobots that can form a snake, or rat, or bird, and he uses it to snoop on the residents and neighbors of the Dervish House.  When he senses the bomb explosion, he sends his nanobot to investigate, setting off a series of events what I am not going to tell you because read the book.

He becomes friends with the isolated, overweight and depressed out of work professor of experimental economics, Georgios Ferentinou, a Greek expat who lives in a room in the Dervish House.  He has a multiscreen computer set up on which he surveys the city.  He also has tea daily with some other old Greed retirees across the street in a cafe.

Necdet gets kidnapped, Cam sees it, and sets off as Boy Detective to solve the case.

(2) The other thread as about money, greed, corruption and the search for the things that do not exist.  This is the thread with Adnam, the futures trader, who together with his three friends concocts a scheme to sell tainted gas to the corrupt pipeline company, sell the futures, get out after making a huge fortune, and live happily ever after.

His wife, the religious artifacts dealer, is approached by a man asking her to find a mellified man.  This is a honey infused corpse.  It is a sweet, human medicine, said to cure any illness. An elderly man would diet on, and bathe in, nothing but honey, until he became ‘mellifluous’.  His body would be interred in a stone coffin, also filled with honey, and sealed for a hundred years. After the allotted time, the result was a mummified human corpse, preserved in a sweet substance – a much sought after medicine, capable of curing a wide range of ailments.

This is for me the most interesting of the threads, following her search.  She eventually comes in contact with a young man, obsessed with finding the seven letters of God, and has decided that they can been seen in an overview of the city.  He can find 6 but cannot find the final letter, and it is through him that Ayşe finally finds the mellified man.

In this thread also are Lyla and the two guys with there bionano startup and their search for funding.

The two main themes/threads come together in the end in a finale that is fun, predictable and satisfying.

So basically the book is about searching.  Everyone in the book is looking for something, and the ending allows them all to find what they need.  Once you get the characters set in your mind, it is really a good book.  Actually, it is one of those books you like better after you have read it, rather than while you are reading it.  It kind of stays with you.


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