Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

“Which would weigh more on the cosmic scales: a tear of gratitude at the great beauty of a flower lifting through ash, or a tear of delirious rage?”

Having high expectations for a new book release can often lead to disappointment. It’s almost a disservice to the book itself to expect so much before you’ve held it in your hands. With this in mind, I cracked open Martyr! and began my reading journey while trying my hardest to pretend I hadn’t squealed with excitement when I received an early copy in the mail. 

Seeing as I already have a Martyr!-inspired tattoo…I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed reading this electrifying fiction debut from Kaveh Akbar, an Iranian-American poet.

In Martyr! we follow Cyrus Shams, an orphan of Iranian immigrants.

Cyrus is a newly sober poet whose fascination with martyrs takes him on a profound, existential journey to examine his past. Grappling with the grief of losing both of his parents, his mother’s plane was shot down over the skies of Tehran in a senseless accident when he was only a baby, and his father passed away shortly after Cyrus started college, he finds himself obsessed with the idea of making his death, or his having-lived, possess meaning. This preoccupation with martyrs becomes all-consuming when he meets an artist living out her final days in the Brooklyn Museum, and their conversations open up even more questions about his family’s past. 

Martyr! has a nonlinear, multi-perspective narrative interspersed with dream sequences and excerpts from Cyrus’s book. This narrative style doesn’t work for every story but in Martyr! it only adds to the genuine intimacy and familiarity Akbar cultivates between these nuanced characters and the reader. 

One of the most interesting perspectives in Martyr! is that of Cyrus’s uncle, Arash.

Arash rode through Iranian battlefields dressed as the angel of death, inspiring and comforting the dying. His chapters are few and far between, but they are impactful and left me wanting an entire novel dedicated to this tormented “living martyr.” There are also sections from the perspectives of Cyrus’s father, his mother, his best friend, the dying artist, and even Lisa Simpson and an unnamed (yet obvious) president. 

Brilliant sentences and impactful imagery make up for a slightly predictable plot, and a final twist that can be seen from miles away is more comforting than disappointing after such an emotion-packed, tender tribute to a life dedicated to seeking meaning. 

I personally enjoyed the exploration of sobriety and addiction in Martyr!

It was refreshing to see such pure and profound insight into the more convoluted aspects of early sobriety in a fiction novel. Akbar himself has been sober for a decade, and his experience bleeds into the sections of Martyr! that address this part of Cyrus’s journey, making the story that much more authentic.

Self-aware and unconventional, Martyr! is a story about art, mythology, capitalism, language, culture, identity, recovery, and existential inquiry. Akbar’s skill as a poet, along with his love of music and The Simpsons, shines throughout his debut fiction novel. I strongly feel we’ll be seeing Martyr! on a few lists in 2024, and I’ll be first in line to buy whatever he puts out next. 

Hot Honey Sour

Ingredients:

  • 1 mandarin orange
  • 1 large knob of ginger, sliced
  • A few sprigs of thyme
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • Hot honey syrup (1 tbsp hot honey, 2 tbsp hot water)
  • Chili powder and salt rim, option garnish

Preparation:

  1. To prepare the glass, you should add hot honey to the rim, mix chili powder and sea salt, garnish the rim, and chill the glass in the freezer.
  2. To a blender, add one sumo mandarin, slices from 1 knob of ginger, a few sprigs of thyme, and 1-3 tbsp of water. Blend until a puree forms, adding the water tbsp by tbsp to keep it from being watered down. 
  3. Into a shaker, add your hot honey syrup and strain the puree. Then add lemon juice.
  4. Add Ice and shake until cold.
  5. Remove your glass from the freezer and pour it up to about ¾ full.
  6. If you want to make it a little spritzy (my personal preference), finish off the last ¼ with sparkling water
  7. Enjoy!