I loved the premise of this book -- Nicholas Jubber explores ethnic, national, and religious identity in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia through the lens of the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. The Shahnameh is an 11th-century Persian epic poem written by Ferdowsi, a poet who is still much revered in Iran and parts of Afghanistan. Throughout his travels, Jubber traces the modern-day influence of Ferdowsi and his epic, as he leads his readers to Zoroastrian celebrations, underground religious ceremonies, performances of the epic by puppet troupes, and meetings with Iranian rappers, artists, and students. Jubber also devotes some time to describing his dangerous journeys through Afghanistan as he sought to retrace Ferdowsi's steps many centuries earlier.
However, Jubber's execution of the book does not live up to its promise. He intersperses a soap opera-esque story about the family he stayed with in Iran throughout much of the book, which I found jarring and not very engaging. The history he provides, although interesting, lacks a strong foundation in Jubber's deeper understanding of the cultural history of the region. As a result, his analysis is limited to surface-level observations about the apparent ubiquity of the Shahnameh in the region. Similarly, he could have benefited from a deeper understanding of the role of myth and narrative in human culture and belief. In addition, he chose to forego a chronological organization for the book, and while I usually like to see writers experiment with structure, in Jubber's case the book's organization seemed haphazard. His writing also often seemed quite pedestrian, which brought me crashing back down to earth after the glorious heights of some of the passages he quoted. Finally, one scene towards the end of the book, which was supposed to be a climactic showdown between Jubber and the sultan who cheated Ferdowsi out of his promised reward for composing the Shahnameh, struck me as rather silly.
I appreciate the book for what I learned about Ferdowsi, and I now plan to read the Shahnameh in translation, and on that basis I am rating the book at a weak three stars. I just wish that Jubber had written a book that lived up to the importance of its subject.