The Historian: You need to know what to expect

fantasy book reviews Elizabeth Kostova The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

… Knowing what to expect, especially in a novel like this one, may make all the difference as to how much you enjoy it (or This is going to be a tricky book to review, particularly since I’ve never seen reviews for a book on Amazon.com so evenly divided as they are for Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian. The people who love it seem to really love it, and those that don’t…really don’t. I think it all comes down to what your expectations are, for unlike easily categorized books, it’s difficult to pin down The Historian.

The story is told in first-person narrative by a young woman retrospectively chronicling her story from the year 2008. Her story takes her back to 1972 when, as a motherless sixteen year old, she finds a mysterious book with the print of a woodcut dragon in the centerfold and a cache of yellowing letters, both in the study of her diplomat father. The first of the letters begins: “my dear and unfortunate successor…” On questioning her father, he begins to divulge the details of his past, which in turn leads to another train of events concerning his university supervisor.

Therefore we have three key narratives at work. Firstly, that of the young woman (and I must confess — I cannot recall what her name is, or if it was ever mentioned in the text) as she goes in search of her missing father in the 1970s, convinced that it all has something to do with her absent mother. Secondly, her father Paul has left behind several letters for her revealing events concerning his *own* search for Professor Rossi, a friend and mentor who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the 1950s, joined by a beautiful woman called Helen who has her own reasons for helping him. Finally, we get Professor Rossi’s original research into the historical figure of Vlad Tepes, (also known as Vlad the Impaler) ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As the deepest layer of narrative at work, Rossi’s tale begins with the sinister dragon book that leads him to the conclusion that Prince Vlad is actually a vampire, and still at large in the world up until the present day.

(Worth mentioning at this stage is that Paul’s story is central, though Rossi’s is perhaps the most memorable and poignant. The fact that I still can’t recall Paul’s daughter’s name is indicative of her story, though to be fair, her narrative has the lowest page count.)

It is a complex but intriguing premise, in which memories within memories are presented by means of various letters and history books. As a storytelling conceit, it allows for suspense and reasonably fluid pacing, but under scrutiny it doesn’t hold up well. For example, the letters that our protagonist receives from her father are presumed to have been written out in the course of a single night before he rushes off in a mad dash. Why then does Paul not only recall with perfect clarity but postulates at length about details such as the meals he ate, the clothes he wore and the frivolous sights he saw over twenty years ago?

Okay, I could possibly hand-wave this due to the framing device that the protagonist provides, which hints that she’s done some editing to the original manuscripts that she’s inherited, and because the liberty allows for Kostova’s rather lovely prose and vivid scene-setting, but there is a definite discord between the story that’s being presented and what we’re supposed to be reading. There are three major points of view at work, telling the three stories that go with them, and yet there is no distinct “voice” to each narrator. Rossi, Paul and Can’t-Remember-Her-Name each have the exact same tone and inflection. That is, Kostova’s. For these reasons and more, the way in which the plot is conveyed simply doesn’t ring true.

But if the style is a little awkward, what about the actual plot? I think this is the most divisive element of the novel. Although the mystery itself is very intriguing, Kostova certainly takes her time reaching her solutions, and these solutions — for some — may be utterly disappointing. For my tastes and reading pleasure, I didn’t mind the meandering pace. I found the characters interesting, the growing sense of dread palatable, the prose beautifully rendered, and the gradual accumulation of historical information as the scholars track Vlad’s movements throughout history intriguing. There are some oddities: the astounding number of coincidences for example, or the ultimate motivation and designs of the immortal Vlad (I won’t reveal them here save to say I’ll admit that my initial response to Vlad’s master-plan was to laugh), yet I was engrossed throughout at the steady unfolding of each characters’ personal mystery and was genuinely moved by their plight.

However, I will say that I had an advantage in one particular regard: I was forewarned about several aspects of the novel before I started reading. I knew that it was slow-paced, that it had excessive amounts of detail, and that the inevitable confrontation was somewhat anti-climactic. As such, I had little in the way of expectation or hype. Knowing what to expect, especially in a novel like this one, may make all the difference as to how much you enjoy it (or whether you even want to pick it up at all).

So for anyone debating either a purchase or loan, I’d advise that you draw your attention to the title itself. It’s pretty much a dead giveaway, for unless you are fantastically interested in history, then a book called The Historian probably isn’t going to get your blood pumping. This is a book that takes its time, enjoys indulging in sensory details, leaves several enigmas unsolved.

Surprisingly enough, despite the book’s length I never felt that I was reading tracts of historical info-dumps in which Kostova was compelled to share with us every single tidbit of her research (in fact, quite the opposite: I actually don’t feel as though I have any further insight into either Vlad the Impaler or Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The research is integrated into the text extremely well, and I felt that even with the excessive detail into landscapes and other minor details, the flow of the story never dragged or became bogged down with anything that was too irrelevant and that didn’t in some way lend to the atmosphere.

It is in creating this “atmosphere” that Kostova excels. From dark and opulent underground tombs, to the rich dark forests of Romania, perhaps this novel works best if described as a travelogue; one that is particularly unique considering it explores Eastern Europe as it existed in three different time periods. In many cases, our protagonists have to go through much political wrangling in order to make it across the borders, and the menacing eyes of the governments involved feel just as dangerous as any vampire.

As for the vampire aspect itself, it’s surprisingly low-key, though effective. Sure, it’s a little silly when Paul and Helen start referring to one of the pursuers as “the evil librarian,” but I was ultimately rather intrigued by Vlad’s goals — and in fact, what the entire purpose of this treasure hunt was from the get-go. That an immensely powerful immortal can put so much effort (granted, some of it rather illogical) into something that seems rather trivial offsets his power rather than diminishes it.

So I enjoyed reading The Historian. But then, I knew what I was getting into. I was ready for what the book was offering, and I appreciated it for its own sake. From an even more subjective point of view, I’m a fairly patient reader, and I don’t mind an author who takes the time to describe the smell of the roses, so long as it’s written well. Which here, it is. In trying to decide what rating to give The Historian, I was torn between three and four stars. However, I’m going to scale it back to three considering that there are several plot holes and odd inconsistencies, though I was sufficiently caught up in the mood and atmosphere to pass them by during the actual reading. In hindsight however, I find myself asking: “but why would so-and-so do that?”

I realize this is an extremely wishy-washy review, but then, that’s an accurate description of the book itself! A little bit of everything, and yet not entirely committing to any of the genres it taps into, The Historian has obviously proved to be a frustrating disappointment for many. However, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed getting swept up in the rich language, the gradual unveiling of both character and mystery, and the somewhat voyeuristic sense of prying into personal letters that hold dark secrets.

The Historian — (2005) Young adult. Available for download at Audible.com. Publisher: In this riveting debut of breathtaking scope, a young girl discovers her father’s darkest secret and embarks on a harrowing journey across Europe to complete the quest he never could — to find history’s most legendary fiend: Dracula. When a motherless American girl living in Europe finds a medieval book and a package of letters, all addressed ominously to “My dear and unfortunate successor…” she begins to unravel a thread that leads back to her father’s past, his mentor’s career, and 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 that nearly brought her father to ruin and may have claimed the life of his adviser and dear friend, history professor Bartholomew Rossi. What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula, have to do with the 20th century? Is it possible that Dracula has lived on in the modern world? And why have a select few historians risked reputation, sanity, and even their lives to learn the answer? So begins an epic journey to unlock the secrets of the strange medieval book, an adventure that will carry our heroine across Europe and into the past — not only to the times of Vlad’s heinous reign, but to the days when her mother was alive and her father was still a vibrant young scholar. In the end, she uncovers the startling fate of Rossi, and comes face to face with the definition of evil — to find, ultimately, that good may not always triumph.

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REBECCA FISHER earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand.

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One comment

  1. Rebecca, you’re right! I read this book back when it first came-out after seeing a story on 20/20 about it. I’d have given it one more star, but like you said, I’m somewhat of a history-geek.
    Plus, I was on vacation and read the whole book in about four days, which is really fast for me. Personally, there are a few books that I’m sure I liked because because I did read them in fewer sittings, but if I’d read them in my average time, I can tell they would start to “drag”. The Historian was like that for me.

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