We are proud to announce that BookBrowse has won Platinum in the 2024 Modern Library Awards.

Reviews of Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar


A Novel

by Kaveh Akbar

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar X
Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Jan 2024, 352 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Chloe Pfeiffer
Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

A newly sober, orphaned son of Iranian immigrants, guided by the voices of artists, poets, and kings, embarks on a remarkable search for a family secret that leads him to a terminally ill painter living out her final days in the Brooklyn Museum. Electrifying, funny, and wholly original, Martyr! heralds the arrival of an essential new voice in contemporary fiction.

Cyrus Shams is a young man grappling with an inheritance of violence and loss: his mother's plane was shot down over the skies of the Persian Gulf in a senseless accident; and his father's life in America was circumscribed by his work killing chickens at a factory farm in the Midwest. Cyrus is a drunk, an addict, and a poet, whose obsession with martyrs leads him to examine the mysteries of his past—toward an uncle who rode through Iranian battlefields dressed as the angel of death to inspire and comfort the dying, and toward his mother, through a painting discovered in a Brooklyn art gallery that suggests she may not have been who or what she seemed.

Kaveh Akbar's Martyr! is a paean to how we spend our lives seeking meaning—in faith, art, ourselves, others.

Not All of His Problems Are a Performance

Cyrus Shams
Keady University, 2015

Maybe it was that Cyrus had done the wrong drugs in the right order, or the right drugs in the wrong order, but when God finally spoke back to him after twenty-seven years of silence, what Cyrus wanted more than anything else was a do-over. Clarification. Lying on his mattress that smelled like piss and Febreze, in his bedroom that smelled like piss and Febreze, Cyrus stared up at the room's single light bulb, willing it to blink again, willing God to confirm that the bulb's flicker had been a divine action and not just the old apartment's trashy wiring.

"Flash it on and off," Cyrus had been thinking, not for the first time in his life. "Just a little wink and I'll sell all my shit and buy a camel. I'll start over." All his shit at that moment amounted to a pile of soiled laundry and a stack of books borrowed from various libraries and never returned, poetry and biographies, To the Lighthouse, My Uncle Napoleon....

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


BookBrowse Review


As a protagonist, Cyrus is rather disappointing; the chapters that follow him, in close third person, are the least interesting of the book. One expects the prose writing of a poet like Akbar to be lively and surprising, but the Cyrus chapters of Martyr!, perhaps crushed by the weight of narrative exposition, mostly left me cold. Luckily, Martyr!'s other characters are more compelling, and Akbar's writing is more playful and stylish when he's not in Cyrus's head. Akbar also includes dreamy, imagined conversations between his characters and historical or fictional ones, like a few pages in which Roya talks to Lisa Simpson or Ali talks to Rumi. And, finally, Cyrus's poems, excerpted from his work in progress "BOOKOFMARTYRS.docx," are really good, brilliant and subtle, so good that I worry I'm underestimating his character...continued

Full Review Members Only (1183 words)

(Reviewed by Chloe Pfeiffer).

Media Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
Poet Akbar is an almost deliriously adept first-time novelist, writing from different points of view and darting back and forth in time and into Cyrus' satirical dreams and the lives of Iranian poets from Rumi to Farrokhzad. Akbar creates scenes of psychedelic opulence and mystery, emotional precision, edgy hilarity, and heart-ringing poignancy as his characters endure war, grief, addiction, and sacrifice, and find refuge in art and love. Bedazzling and profound.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Akbar deploys a range of styles with equal flair, from funny wordplay...to incisive lyricism...This wondrous novel will linger in readers' minds long after the final page.

Kirkus Reviews
The novel is talky, ambitious, allusive, deeply meditative...It succeeds so well on its own terms that the novel's occasional flaws...don't mar the experience in any significant way...Imperfect, yes, but intense, original, and smart.

Author Blurb Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed
I can't remember the last time a book made me feel like this. Martyr! is simply extraordinary. The language moves across the page like a symphony, and the story vibrates with an energy that made the book impossible to put down. Kaveh Akbar has written a novel that will stay with me forever. What a story. What a voice. What a gift.

Author Blurb John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars
A brilliant and blisteringly alive novel about not just how we go on, but also why. Kaveh Akbar's first novel is so stunning, so wrenching, and so beautifully written that reading it for the first time, I kept forgetting to breathe. I will carry this story, and the people in it, with me for the rest of my life.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
Kaveh Akbar is a radiant soul, a poet so agile and largehearted it comes as no surprise that his first leap into fiction is elegant, dizzying, playful. Martyr! is the best novel you'll ever read about the joy of language, addiction, displacement, martyrdom, belonging, homesickness for people longed for but forever unknown, the way art as eruption of life gazes back into death, and the ecstasy that sometimes arrives—like grace—when we find ourselves teetering on the knife-edge of despair.

Reader Reviews

Sue B

A thought provoking view of martyrdom
Webster defines a martyr as "someone who sacrifices something of immense value, even their own life, for the sake of a principle". With Cyrus Shams we are introduced to an orphaned Iranian, Cyrus, navigating a self-imposed purgatory. His journey is ...   Read More

Write your own review!

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book

Iran Air Flight 655

View from behind of relatives of victims of Flight 655, standing on the deck of a boat as they visit location of shoot-down On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a Navy missile cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, saw on its radar an Iranian aircraft. This aircraft was a passenger airplane, flying from Tehran to Dubai with 290 civilians on board, including 66 children. But the crew of the USS Vincennes identified the airplane as a fighter jet and fired two missiles at it, killing everyone on board.

In the aftermath, the United States deflected responsibility, refused to condemn the attack, and never apologized to the Iranian people. US military officials blamed the pilot and made other attempts to shift accountability. This was during the Iran-Iraq War, for which the US was providing support to Iraq, and the Persian Gulf was full of tension and fighting. ...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Martyr!, try these:

  • The New Earth jacket

    The New Earth

    by Jess Row

    Published 2024

    About this book

    More by this author

    A globe-spanning epic novel about a fractured New York family reckoning with the harms of the past and confronting humanity's uncertain future, from award-winning author Jess Row

  • The Sentence jacket

    The Sentence

    by Louise Erdrich

    Published 2022

    About this book

    More by this author

    In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost story, a tale of passion, of a complex marriage, and of a woman's relentless errors.

Read-Alikes are one of the many benefits of membership. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Neighbors and Other Stories
    Neighbors and Other Stories
    by Diane Oliver
    The history of American segregation, along with changes to it in the 1960s, is sometimes taught and ...
  • Book Jacket: Wild and Distant Seas
    Wild and Distant Seas
    by Tara Karr Roberts
    Tara Karr Roberts is a newspaper columnist who also teaches English and journalism. Wild and Distant...
  • Book Jacket: The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years
    The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years
    by Shubnum Khan
    Shubnum Khan's eloquent and moving debut novel opens in 1932, when a djinn that haunts a house by ...
  • Book Jacket: Transient and Strange
    Transient and Strange
    by Nell Greenfieldboyce
    Throughout her powerful essay collection, Transient and Strange, science reporter Nell ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
Mockingbird Summer
by Lynda Rutledge
A powerful and emotional coming-of-age novel set in the 1960s by the bestselling author of West with Giraffes.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Strong Passions
    by Barbara Weisberg

    Shocking revelations of a wife's adultery in 19th New York explode in an incendiary trial exposing the upper-crust and its secrets.

  • Book Jacket

    The Adversary
    by Michael Crummey

    An enthralling novel about a small town struggling to survive, and a bitter vendetta between two rivals.

Win This Book
Win The Cleaner

The Cleaner
by Brandi Wells

Rarely has cubicle culture been depicted in such griminess or with such glee."
PW (starred review)



Solve this clue:

I Wouldn't T H W A T-F P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.