Ian McDonald‘s The Dervish House is a hard book to review, at least for me. Because as much as I enjoyed the story and the storytelling I had a hard time with the characters. Not that they were unbelievable, or shallow, but because not one single one was likeable.
In some books characters who we, should we encounter them in real life, would consider neither nice nor personable and still the author makes us sympathise with them, or at least makes us understand why they are who they are. And some characters can be so interesting that we stop connecting their morals and aims with those of our own, respecting them for who they are, in their own right.
The Dervish House had NO character that I cared for, and there was several to chose from – a nine year old boy with a heart condition, an old side-stepped economics professor wallowing in self-pity, a flash yuppie futures trader and his überclass wife dealing in religious relics, and a whacked out junkie and his Islamist brother.
So, no “connect”, no one whose future I cared about.
Yet – an enjoyable book. How come?
First of all, like all of Ian McDonald’s books that I’ve read it is well written. Presumably well researched, oozing of local colour. No loose ends. Poetic.
Second, the world he describes is not ours, yet a plausible future extrapolation of it. He chooses a technology – in this case nano – and shows how the tech and human behaviour (and politics) combine to make up this new, changed, world. Not really a mirror world, the classic science fictional treat, but an idea of what might become of us if certain things happen. And at heart is human drives, human passions, human conniving; eternal themes, in fiction, in news reporting and in the history textbooks.
Lastly, they story itself is interesting enough to make me want to know how the jigsaw pieces he show, one after the other, me will fit together, in the end. And come together it did, in a very good way.
So, definitely worth reading, and recommended. Perhaps especially to those who don’t often read science fiction as the fictional science of The Dervish House isn’t far out, nor placed off-planet, and thus easier to accept.