Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

GENRE: historical fiction/vampire fiction/thriller

Late one night, exploring her father's library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to 'My dear and unfortunate successor'. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of - a labyrinth where the secrets of her father's past and her mother's mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright - a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.


This novel is not a sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it does present Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century ruler of Wallachia, famous for his atrocities, as the famous vampire Dracula. The story begins when a professor's teenage daughter (who is also the narrator of the novel and is never named) finds old letters while exploring her father's library and what is so striking about these letters is that they are all addressed to 'My dear unfortunate successor'. The narrator begins to question her father and although very reluctant, the professor – Paul – begins a detailed account of his past, slowly revealing that the monster that ruled Wallachia centuries ago is still alive, or rather undead.

This novel is hard to summarise, as truly many things happen and I don't won't to give anything away. However, I will do my best to do this book justice in a vague, yet still understandable way.

The novel tells three stories: the story of Paul's mentor who wrotte the letters, the story of Paul and the narrator's mother, and the story of Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler. It is a very detailed account of history and folklore of (mostly) Eastern Europe. It is obvious that the author made a lot of research and incorporated it into the novel. As a result, the novel is slow-paced at times, but still makes for a gripping read, creating suspense just when you think the calm has finally settled into the story. A lot of towns and villages are present, a lot of characters are involved, weaving an intricate labyrinth, some willing to help the narrator find the truth and some determined to keep it hidden for ever. A lot of clues are given, but it takes some time and a lot of effort to piece them together properly and when the narrator does, she is in for a shocking revelation. There is a reason why Vlad Tepes is alive and why he needs someone that Paul's mentor refers to as 'my unfortunate successor'. It is quite incredible that in the end, it all comes down to the love of knowledge and books that even monsters are capable of. I can't say more in my review, but I must say that I found the revelation to be both shocking and beautiful – beautiful in the sense that I value knowledge, books and education very much.

It really is a multi-layered story, involving a lot of events and characters, and one must pay attention, just like the narrator. It is important to note that although the story is very mutli-layered, it never gets confusing. The author kept it well balanced throughout the novel. At the gist of the story is the narrator's need to find her mother and by finding her mother, she must face the danger that she might meet Dracula along the way, for her mother and Dracula are connected. But if that is what it takes to bring her family together gaain, the intelligent and brave narrator will do it.

My favourite parts of the novel were the ones regarding Vlad Tepes. His history is explored in detail and the places where he lived and was supposedly buried are visited and explored. That was a very thrilling reading experience for me. The story follows his life to the letter. I know this because my interest in Dracula made me explore Vlad Tepes years ago. I think the author handled his death and then rebirth very well. At first, it bothered me that Eastern and Central Europe (I live in Central Europe) were presented as being backwater places, as especially countries in Central Europe are just as modern as any other European country, but then I finally realised the book takes place in the 1970s so, sadly, the backwater-issue makes sense due to communism in the past (which is partly tackled in the novel).

This novel is definitely a homage to history and knowledge. It is quite an intelectual read and if you like that, then it is definitely a novel for you. The suspense is great. I kept waiting for Dracula to appear. The vampires, especially Dracula, are always hinted at. They sort of lurk in the shadows and strike occasionally, but the one vampire that has been evading everyone finally appears in the grand finale. I just loved this suspense. Dracula was always present in spirit, in a way, creating tension and anticipation this way, and when he finally appears it is a moment that makes you feel in awe.

After many events, descriptions and character intruductions, after all the tension and web-weaving, the climax seemed rushed, which seems to be a problem of many books that are delightfully slow-paced, as they build tension that way, but when that tension finally reaches its peak, it sort of dies away because of story- rushing. However, the very ending itself offers both comfort and discomfort, which definitely makes up for the rushed climax.

All in all, the novel is perhaps a bit too slow-paced at times, almost running in circles, but it is rich in historical and cultural details, so in this sense, it is definitely a treat to read. I would recommend this novel to those who are both lovers of historical fiction and of vampires. It takes some patience to read, as it is more than 600 pages long, but the final experience is quite rewarding.



Julie P said...

Nice review, Irena! I think this one is on my wish list....

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I read this when it first came out and found it a bit too slow-paced and boring for me but I really liked your review-vague but understandable :D

Blodeuedd said...

I loved this book, could not put it down, even if it yes was slow at time. But she is just such a good writer

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I read this one as a ReadAlong and LOVED it. I've read lots of reviews/comments by others who did not care for it bc it's so slow...but I think that a reader has to go into this one ready for a slow savor, not a speedy drive thru. There is so much to think about within this novel...I too was mesmerized by the history of Vlad Tepes as well as the politics, geography and culture presented in narrative form. Our ReadAlong host also provided us with extra outside snippets and photos of the places/people mentioned in the novel. :)

Witch of Stitches said...

I also read this when it first came out - some time ago - and could not put it down, loved it. I also enjoyed a "slow savor" as Peppermint Ph.D calls it.

Jan von Harz said...

I have this on my shelf but have never read it. After reading your beautiful review I definitely will be pulling it down and checking it out.

Unknown said...

My husband has wanted to read this for a while. I may just have to get it for his stocking after reading your review. He likes intellectual novels. I think this one would be too much a commitment for me but I'm glad you enjoyed it.