Abandoned: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

I’ve been debating whether to say anything or not about books I abandon rather than finish. It makes sense to review a book I completed. I’m not so sure it’s kind or fair to review one I didn’t. But I ultimately decided that, should I ever get any kind of following from authors or would-be authors my reasons for abandoning the book might be helpful, even though I realize that many such cases will inevitably come down to taste.

The Dervish House came recommended by someone I respect. However, I’m finding that my respect for them as an artist does not automatically mean I can trust their taste. I’m coming to the conclusion that, in this case, we just have different tastes.

Why did I abandon this book? The setting is interesting. The writing is elegant and evocative. The characters have potential. It could be a good book if I push on and finish it.

But it goes nowhere. McDonald centers the beginning of the book around a single event–a bombing on a commuter train. It’s an exciting way to begin. It grabs your attention. But then he subjects you to an endless set of rewinds as we’re introduced to character after character, each scene set coincident to the time of the bombing. I lost track of just how many characters we are forced to rewind for, but I can recall at least seven, and it feels like more than that.

The lack of motion was one reason why I set the book aside to go read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn instead. When I finished that book I decided I should come back to this one and give it another try. I was rewarded with…more new characters living the same block of time. It’s like Groundhog Day, only without the chance to get to know anyone well enough to like them or cheer for their development–or see any development, for that matter.

I finished another section convinced that surely we’d move on now and start explaining why I need to care about all of these largely unrelated people. Nope. I ran smack into yet another new character made late for a job interview when the bomb goes off on a different train from hers.

So, I quit. I feel like I’ve been reading this book for months, and it’s gone nowhere. There are other books waiting in line, and for a longer time than this one has. This one cost me 25 cents from the library’s clearance rack, so no great loss. I may give it another try someday. There is so much potential there. But that’s the problem. It seems as if the book will be all potential, no progress.

To be fair, the man who recommended it was doing so after having read less of it than I have. He may very well have run into the same problem I did later on and quit also.

But ultimately this book is starting to feel too “literary” for me. It’s not a long book, but it’s hard reading. I can’t help but feel as though the main point of the book is for the author to show off how many perspective characters he can juggle and still weave into a cohesive story. But how many juggling acts would we care to watch where the juggler first came out and introduced you to each ball separately. “This is the first ball I will juggle. It is three inches in diameter, weighs about half a pound, and in a nice crimson color. It feels slightly rubbery to the touch, making it easy to grip. Now then, this is the second ball I will juggle. It is two and a half inches in diameter, weighs only seven ounces, and is a color most comparable to teal. It is hard and smooth like a billard ball. In fact it is one, as I grabbed it from my pool table this morning. It’s somewhat slippery, adding to the difficulty level.” Now, imagine him doing that for at least seven balls before he even starts any juggling.

There are people who would love this book. I might have loved this book had I pushed on but one section longer. But I may not find out for some time. Meanwhile, I’m setting it aside to get to something else on my list.

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