If Darius the Great was known for being the third Persian King of the Achaemenid Empire, high school sophomore Darius Kellner of Portland can be defined by his love for tea, Star Trek, and his love for his best friend, Sohrab.
In his authorial debut titled “Darius The Great Is Not Okay”, Adib Khorram pens the story of a teenage boy’s first-ever family trip to Iran – the opportunity for him to explore his Persian heritage and connect with a side of his family that he’s only seen on a screen.
Darius sometimes struggles with his identity; being Fractional Persian doesn’t bother him as much as not knowing what that means. What’s more, he also suffers from clinical depression and oftentimes feels distant from his family – specifically from his father, Stephen Kellner, who is at battle with depression himself.
In a charming YA (Young Adult) story spanning a little over 300 pages, the author approaches mature themes of tradition, self-identity, mental illness, family, and most of all, friendship. It makes for a distinctive and soulful novel of self-discovery that effortlessly tugs at your heartstrings for its main character, even despite the book’s few shortcomings.
In what is perhaps the most delightful aspect of the book, it is key to mention the friendship between our protagonist and his newfound best friend. Darius and Sohrab’s relationship is nothing less than heartwarming – it makes sense and doesn’t feel forced. These two characters understand each other as if they were lifelong best friends, despite only knowing each other for a few weeks. They truly bring out the best in each other, and it’s a pleasure to read their exchanges of smiles, laughs, and shoulder hugs.
The culture of Yazd and Iran reflected in the bits and pieces of scenery and description of the story – from the various types of food, drinks, desserts, and teas to the architecture of Yazd’s streets, temples, and towers. You can’t help but paint a very specific image in your head when reading about the settings – this makes for an extremely unique atmosphere all around.
The character of Darius Kellner. Our protagonist reads like a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional personality whose thoughts and actions oftentimes come close to springing off the pages through their humanity. Darioush (as the Persian side of his family calls him) has his quirks (his love for tea and for watching Star Trek with his dad), his insecurities (his struggle of body-image as a result of the depression medication), and his character difficulties. Throughout the book, he often finds it difficult to express himself or his love for certain members of his family from who he feels estranged. Even so, he shows his feelings through the attention and care he gives to every one of his family members – especially his Mamou (grandmother) and Laleh, his little sister (he mentions quite often how he enjoys his little sister falling asleep with her face buried in his shoulders).
This leads to another positive highlight of the book – the relationship between Laleh and Darius. Not only does it offer the aforementioned adorable moments of love between older brother and little sister, it later allows Darius to experience hurt on a level he thought couldn’t be possible – when his father suddenly ends their regular Star Trek movie nights and Laleh joins him instead, he starts feeling the tiniest bit of resentment towards his sister – not enough to make his love for her change, but just enough for the reality of the situation to sting the reader in the heart.
If there is one outright negative aspect of the overall enjoyable novel – it’s the issue of pacing/lack of importance of events. For what felt like, at minimum one-quarter of these 319 pages, nothing seemed to be going on in the grand scheme of things. Yes, we got snippets of life in Iran and bits of info about Darius’ family tree instead, but only about half of the information provided actually advanced the plot of the book – Darius’ internal conflict between his American and Persian self, or the rocky relationship between him and his father, and how he deals with these issues mentally. Overall, the book is too short and doesn’t give enough attention to elements that could enrich these actual plot points. It is nice to read about various types of tea both Iranian and American, but such details should not be focused on when it takes away from essential action.
The approach Khorram tried to resolve this issue with was speeding up a particular chapter near the end of the book, which, although it did offer interesting turning points and conflict, as well as character development for a significant character that had been lacking one, it felt somewhat shoehorned in at the last minute – with conflict starting up and resolving between characters with little time spent in-between these stages.
The aspects mentioned below can and will be argued for and against, but they felt necessary to mention at the very least for their questionable nature.
The abundance of side-characters with little-to-no development of them. Particularly when looking at Darius’ mother’s side of the family, the large number of family members – cousins, aunts, uncles, and so on – more often than not feel like accessories through which Darius can establish himself as a character, and not like fully-fledged personalities. One counterargument to this can be the idea that having such a big family present can be representative of Persian families and also how much Darius doesn’t know about his family tree. While this is true, there were simply too many names mentioned throughout the book with very little traces of character attached to them – and when they returned in a later chapter, it was generally hard to remember which name belonged to whom.
Sohrab is a (mostly) flawless character. It’s true: you can’t fully get to know the dark shadow of one’s character during the span of a vacation trip. But even so, Sohrab oftentimes felt like a fantasy-like escape of a person that Darius could run to when things would go wrong in his family or his mental landscape, simply for the reason that Sohrab was so understanding and kind. Going back to the pacing error, the author did try to edge out Sohrab quite a bit. Even if we ignore the fact that it was done in a rushed manner, it just simply wasn’t enough. Seeing more of Sahreb’s flaws in more chapters than one would have created a more accurate portrayal of him as a human being, with readers perhaps being able to attach themselves to him even more significantly.
For an authorial debut, this novel is fantastic – Adib Khorram was able to write a compelling story with a distinct setting, touch the heart of readers through his characters and their close relationships, and keep the curious mind trained with small fragments of Persian culture and tradition trivia. While some aspects would have been worth balancing out more, it does not pull the quality of the book down significantly, and Darius The Great Is Not Okay makes for a worthwhile read to any reader interested in tales of family, mental health, and close friendships.