09 April 2007

Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian 1972: An American teenager living in Amsterdam stumbles across a strange book in her diplomat father’s library. All the pages are blank save those in the centre, which show an engraving of a fierce dragon clutching a banner emblazoned with a single word: DRAKULYA. Even more intriguing is the packet of letters with the book, addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. When she asks her father about them, he begins to take her with him on his trips across Europe, telling her the story of how he came into possession of both book and letters. Piece by piece, she hears the tale of his thesis adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who once received a similar book and who vanished after giving the letters to his student; and of how he, Paul, decided to set off on a rescue mission accompanied by Rossi’s unacknowledged daughter Helen. She also discovers firsthand the kinds of warnings delivered to those who inquire too closely into the significance of ‘Drakulya’.

Then her father also disappears during a trip to Oxford, and on returning to Amsterdam she raids his desk and finds a packet of letters in which he continues his tale and reveals part of why - but not where – he’s gone. But she’s seen enough of what he was reading in the Oxford archives to work out the rest, and sets out after him, pursued and then accompanied by the Oxford grad student assigned to escort her home. Along the way they read the letters, about how Paul and Helen travelled through Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria in search of any trace not just of Rossi, but of Vlad the Impaler, the infamous fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler on whom the legend of Dracula was based. For Rossi’s research had led him to believe that Vlad might not be dead . . .

Having previously encountered vampires only by way of Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was good to read another, more historical, perspective. And ‘historical’ is definitely the word for this book; it’s loaded with information about mediaeval Eastern European history and the Ottoman Empire. Vlad’s antics - in life or in undeath – weren’t cheerful reading but they were interesting, and I now have a mental list of topics to read more on (him and the Ottomans, and I’d love to read a non-fiction book about the development of the vampire legend). The first part of the book made for compulsive reading, with information being revealed bit by chilling bit. Unfortunately once the nameless narrator and companion Stephen Barley found themselves stranded in the middle of the French countryside after dodging one of Dracula’s minions, it all went a bit lopsided. Letter after letter after letter, then a few sentences or paragraphs about what she and Barley were doing, then letter after letter after letter. I actually began flipping through the pages in search of any on which every paragraph didn’t begin with quotation marks. It started to feel like, rather than being the main character as I had believed, she was just a means of displaying the story of Paul and Helen. Some of the balance was restored by the end, with a nice twist, although the final confrontation had a touch of the deus ex machina about it. And I never could quite work out why Rossi would return to a line of research from which he had been comprehensively scared off. Is scholarly rivalry that strong?

But in spite of its flaws, this was still a book worth reading; after all, I do give extra points to anything that offers up some history and makes me want to head to the non-fiction section of the library. But if history’s not your thing you probably won’t find it as entertaining.

Rating: B-


teabird said...

Any book book that leads me to investigate another book, or learn about something new, is automatically given some slack!

Interesting review -

Marianne Arkins said...

I never could make it through this book... I found it difficult to read, and terribly boring. Perhaps that's just me? I typically really enjoy vampire novels (having cut my teeth on "Interview With A Vampire" and other scary creature books (I adore Dean Koontz, especially his early stuff like "Watchers").

I think your review is right on the money... this is more history than vampire, honestly. I'm not sure it really deserved the huge advance it rec'd though. Just my .02, FWIW.

Anonymous said...

I have been on the fence as to whether or not to read this book. I don't really have any interest in Dracula, vampires, or anything related to that, however it seemed like an interesting book. After reading your review and the subsequent comments to your review, I think I'm going to take this off my TBR list. Thanks for the help!

Anonymous said...

All in all I found the book an enjoyable, although somewhat unbalanced, read

A bit of a problem with these "fact based fiction" books is the implicitly suggested urge to discern fact from fiction (mostly by the publishers). As this is not possible in what is ultimately a book of fiction, the importance of referring to the correctness of facts becomes moot. As a comparison: every piece of The Lord of The Rings is fiction without fact, yet nothing is amiss.

It also poses another problem: If you point out to people that the facts are not all that right as claimed, they will tell you that it's "only a story". When you point out the improbable happenings in the story, they will claim that the book is based on facts "and makes you think". That's why those claims about accurate facts at the base of the story make discussing a book a lot more difficult. The claims might be right or wrong, but ultimately they're irrelevant and unnecessary.

The same goes for this book, although luckily Kostova doesn't come up with hyped Dan-Brownesque claims about the underlying facts.
But nevertheless, the basic premise of the book is the link of the historical figure of Vlad III to vampirism; yet Vlad III Ţepeş never was linked to vampirism until the loose reference Bram Stoker made in his late 19th century novel.

Obviously Kostova uses the style of Stoker's "Dracula" (diary entries, letters, multiple persons giving multiple perspectives) but it only stresses what the ultimately judgement about this book: it's basically a very conventional and hardly surprising gothic novel about vampires. You could therefore ask yourself: "what did surprise me in this book?" and the answer would most likely be "nothing" for most people.

Personally I'm convinced that Kostova oversaw a possibility for a much more exciting story: linking the historically accurate facts about Vlad - without the need to tamper with them for the sake of the book or without any of the bogus claims about his link to vampires - to some astonishing legacy of his cruel reign set forth into modern times. There's plenty of material there, I can assure you.

Ultimately vampires, ghosts and walking skeletons are cardboard characters we can't relate to, they are unreal; while real life characters dealing with real problems and threaths gives us the opportunity to identify with them and with their problems. And that's not the kind of "how to shoot a silver bullet right through th heart without missing the first time".

Next time an editor might well weed out the passages where Kostova's hopefully new books lose pace, and where Kostova takes us on a voyage which only seems to be inserted to display her mastery of facts.

Although its pace might be a bit more consistent (slow in the beginning, speeding up, slowing down in the middle, hurrying to a somewhat hasty end) "The Historian" is an enjoyable read. The book leaves no doubt that Kostova has the talent for writing a good story that people like Dan Brown who she's often compared to, lacks.

Thanks for your review. It's always a pleasure to compare your own opinion with that from someone else, and especially the differences in emphasis. All the best,

Utrecht, Netherlands


Amat Libris said...

I think you have to enjoy history to be able to get through this book with a minimum of frustration!

Jeroen: Wow! You've given me a lot to think about there; I can see I'll have to dig Dracula out of my TBR box soon, to compare styles and see where the association of Vlad and vamps started.

Aarti said...

In a ramble through book friends' links to other book blogs, I came across yours. I really like it- I think we have similar tastes in books. I had a very similar reaction to The Historian. To me, it seemed much of the time like Kostova had done a lot of research on the period and HAD to find a way to put every bit of it in there! That random article in the middle about Dracula's history read almost like a thesis...

Anyway, glad to have discovered you! My blog is at http://aartichapati.blogspot.com if you're interested :-)

Carrie said...

Interesting! I had heard of this book but didn't know anything about it. Your review was very helpful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I struggled through this book and nearly stopped reading altogether because of it. The history was stiffling.

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