The king of the title is Shah Naser, a nineteenth-century Persian monarch torn between his power-hungry mother, who encourages him to emulate his dictatorial forebears, and his forward-thinking vizier, who has ambitious plans for modernizing the country’s technological infrastructure, education, and health care, among other things.
Although the shah is fascinated by newfangled inventions like the telegraph, he remains woefully distanced from his impoverished populace, preferring to spend time with his cat and large harem and increase his personal wealth. This leaves Persia susceptible to foreign interests—British, French, and Russian—seeking control of its land and natural resources.
The direct, unadorned style makes for a fast-paced, entertaining tale about Iran’s internal and external power struggles during an era of significant change. In addition, the novel provides instructive background on the growing political influence of the country’s ayatollahs.
The King was published by New Directions in August in hardcover (352pp, $24.95). The novel was translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier. This review first appeared in Booklist's 9/1 issue. Receiving this book for assignment was a pleasant surprise, since I enjoy reading literature in translation and learning more about less familiar periods of history. I also didn't realize, until finding a mention on the website of the author's Dutch publisher just now, that his great-great-grandfather was Mirza Kabir, Shah Naser's reform-minded vizier.