Review: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

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.

Poetic, even.

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.

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Reamde is not an easy book to review. It is a wast brick of over 1000 pages. My copy is, in my eyes, beautifully bound, partially deckle edged, and with the typography made by someone who actually wants to make reading a pleasurable activity. Which means I was biased towards it, favourably, even before I got around to read it.

Geographically the story starts in Iowa, then romps on to Seattle and China, before returning to north America via a side-trips to Taiwan and the Philippines respectively, and the plot-lines are equally disparate, romping, and – not to forget – with a body count on par with that of the goriest action flicks.

I chose the word “romp” because in some ways and despite the terrible things happening to unsuspecting and, to borrow a term from Stephenson himself – mundane, people, it is a book that is a pleasure to read.

The first person we meet is Richard. He is a fiftyish entrepreneur in the gaming business who decides to help his niece Zula, whose expertise is in magma flow modelling, by giving her a job in the company. Soon after her boyfriend Peter becomes entangled with shady people, for the simple reason that he needs money to stay afloat during the recession. Accidentally he transfers a virus to one of the mobsters, the result of which is that all the data the mobsters need to make money gets encrypted and held hostage in the World of Warcraft-like game T’Rain – the game made by Richard’s company. Pointers leads to China so the Russian mobster grabs his in-house Hungarian hacker Csongor, Zula, and her boyfriend and goes to Xiamen, to find the Chinese hacker and take him out. The mobster’s head of security, Sokolov, is secretly worried about the clinical sanity of his boss but doesn’t dare break a contract. And so it starts…

The people we learn to know are only trying to stay alive, to keep a head above the water and to continue to breathe, and by each of these moments they step by step slip so far into the realm of the outright unbelievable believability becomes a moot point – each step was reasonable so the end result must be reasonable too, right?

No. The end result is not reasonable, it is way over the hill. People gets humiliated, people get shot, people dies. The bad guys kills indiscriminately. They also get killed that way, whenever possible, because soon enough it is clear to the reasonable mundane people that it is the only way to stay alive.

A real thriller, in other words, and in the true sense of it. And I loved it. Absolutely loved every bit of it.

And yet I am a wee bit disappointed. Even when smiling a bit over the brief stop-over in the Philippines, a country featuring heavily back in Cryptonomicon, and even as I was worried over the fate of this character or that, I missed the Big Ideas part that often are so central to Stephenson’s books. In this Reamde is more kin to Zodiac or Cobweb (of which Cobweb is the one worth picking up – it dates back to the anthrax fears of the late 90’s) than it is to Anathem.

Anathem, on the other hand, was the ultimate Big Ideas novel, so admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. Because a good romp, a good thriller and some decent well-written suspense, can be a fantastic experience too. And that Reamde is.

Definitely recommended.

Terrorists. Or freedom fighters. Or plain naivety.

After having it warm shelf space for some time I’m finally reading The Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones, and halfway through the section labelled The mother of all slaughters, which discusses political terrorism in Italy during the 60’s through early 80’s, I can’t help but think of another book – Tigana, by Canadian author of literary fantasy Guy Gavriel Kay.

Why? Because the strategies employed in Tigana by Alessan and Baerd in their attempt to liberate their country is exactly the same as used by the fascist movement during Italy’s anni di piombo – the years of lead – when so many people died in terrorist attacks aiming at destabilizing the state.
Or, at least that’s my interpretation. I’m sure Italians have another opinion on it, this in itself depending on political heritage.

Anyhow, it is striking how Kay manages to hide the fact that the protagonists of Tigana are engaged in systematic terrorism behind a veil of sympathy for the cause, for the underdog, for the repressed people. Interestingly enough the setting is very Italian, not only the general geography and culture but the political stage with city states and a very end-of-wwII set-up with two warring conquerors /the Allies with the Italian king on one side and the Germans with Il Duce on the other/.

To me, reading The Dark Heart of Italy is like being given the final pieces of the jigsaw, the key to understanding Tigana. If this is how Kay intended his piece of fiction to be read I have to wonder about his political leanings, about his objectives. But possibly he’s just another romantic academic, exploring histories to which he himself has no emotional connection – only curiosity.