Adib Khorram’s 2018 Darius the Great Is Not Okay is the first volume in the mainstream Darius the Great series.
Darius the Great — King of Kings, Great King, King of Persia, Babylon, and Egypt, architect of an Achaemenid golden age — accomplished great deeds that are still spoken of with awe millennia later. Darius Grover Kellner is named for Darius the Great but his accomplishments are far humbler. Thus far, Darius has succeeded in being a social outcast, the go-to target for school bullies.
His grandfather’s impending death will upend Darius’ life.
Darius’ father, whose tendency to depression Darius inherited, was born and raised in the United States of America. Darius’ mother, whose looks Darius inherited, was born and raised in Iran, only moving to the US as an adult. Darius is therefore half-Persian. He is therefore sufficiently Iranian to provide his schoolmates with a pretext for harassment (not that they need a pretext) without being Persian in the sense of that he knows Farsi or much about his mother’s culture.
Contact with Darius’ intimidating grandfather and his grandmother has always been online. Now his grandfather has a brain tumor that will surely kill him. The news is sufficient for the entire Kellner family to undertake their very first family trip to his mother’s hometown of Yazd in Iran.
The obvious benefit of this trip is time away from his school bullies. However, the prospect of a visit to a nation whose language he does not speak and with whose cultures he is unfamiliar is daunting. As well, Darius manages his strained relationship with his judgmental father by limiting time spent with him (save for their long, methodical watch of the entire Star Trek oeuvre). The trip mandates close quarters.
To Darius’ intense astonishment, the trip offers an unexpected benefit: the chance to reinvent himself. Step one: become best friends with Yazdian teen Sohrab.
While being in many respects unlike Mammoths at the Gates, Darius the Great is Not OK shares with it such events and themes as a return home to a changed community, the death (or impending death) of an elder, personal reinvention, and the challenge of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable. I didn’t plan to read two books that shared so many themes1. Sometimes — often — it just works out that way.
A fact that plays a significant role in the narrative is that Iran is not a monolithic culture. Darius’ grandparents are not Muslim but Zoroastrian2. His friend Sohrab’s family is Bahá’í. The government of Iran tolerates the Zoroastrians (although various laws effectively forbid traditional customs, such as exposing the dead). However, the authorities and general population loath the Bahá’í, a detail that is increasingly plot-significant. Still, it’s heartening to know that nations on opposite sides of the planet have common ground, although less heartening that that common ground is widespread prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities.
Where SF might raise the stakes of cultural conflict with some ray gun blasts or planet busters, this novel does it by presenting the events of the book through the eyes of a kid with an impressive ability to overthink and document events combined with an equally impressive disinclination to talk to people to see if what he thinks is going on is going on. While he’s perfectly aware that he and his father are both clinically depressed, it turns out that being aware of cognitive biases is not the same thing as being able to compensate for them. Who knew?
This was one of two books a patron suggested I read. I of course ended up reading both. While Darius is an SF fan and there are many references to science fiction, especially Star Trek, the novel itself is mundane. Not my thing, for the most part. However, Darius’s journey is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the novel.
1: Something else to which the plot bears similarity is CanLit. Specifically, CanLit loves to mark plot transitions with sudden deaths. Now, you might think it’s not surprising a book one of whose characters has a brain tumor features a death. You may want to adjust your expectations. The particular death and the way it is managed are very CanLit-ish. I assume this narrative technique is a parallel development, because Canada is entirely absent from the narrative. This is because this is a book about Persia and the US.
2: This is a family issue because descent is patrilineal and by marrying a non-Zoroastrian, Darius’ mother broke the heretofore unbroken chain. As a result, Darius cannot be accepted into the Zoroastrian community. Membership is by birth, not by conversion. This is a pressing issue for Zoroastrian communities, which are dwindling thanks to mixed marriages.