Book: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Historial Fiction
Summary (from back of Back Bay edtion): Breathtaklingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family's past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe-in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world. -2009, Back Bay Books
Like history? Like vampires? Like both? The Historian may be the book for you.
I knew of this book from when I had read Kostova's second novel The Swan Thieves (an equally good read should you care to take a look). I had never sought it out until, like the heroine of the novel, I found it by accident in my local bookshop. Now, I'm an English major. If I hadn't been an English major, I would've been a history major. I happen to enjoy elements of the supernatural and vampires are no exception. (On a personal, ironic note, I hate watching vampire movies. Bella Lugosi is the one exception. Sorry True Blood and Sookie Stackhouse novel fans; I'm not a follower. I refuse to acknowledge the other tale of "vampires" that has been released in the past ten years.) Anyway, once I read the back cover, I was hooked. I bought the book, but I didn't touch it for over a year. My summer last year was pretty booked and I had no time for summer reading. With a new summer and a fresh start, I was determined to read the novel. After two long weeks, I finally finished it. Without giving away too many spoilers, here's the breakdown.
The genre is exactly what it is: historical fiction. I would've labeled it historical/fantasy fiction, but the vampire/supernatural element is so subtle, it's not worth the label. Yes, vampires are prevalent, but the vampiric moments are few and far between. This is not a horror novel by any means, so if you're looking for the gore, I'm afraid you'll have to choose another book. Fans of the original Dracula by Stoker can see similarities between the nameless heroine's parents and Jonathan and Mina Harker. It struck me that if this story didn't take place in "the real world" and the Dracula in this novel wasn't more Vlad the Impaler than demonic Count Dracula, this might have been a prequel/sequel to the Stoker novel.
As mentioned before, this Dracula is basically Vlad the Impaler: Vampire Version. He's the historical figure from Transylvania that had a particular thing for impaling people. If you're a fan of this Dracula, you've come to the right novel. Dracula/Vlad remains mysterious and otherworldly throughout the whole novel. He makes very, very brief appearances and so do his minions. What's funny about this Dracula is that, though he's clearly the villain and main source of evil, he doesn't do anything that demonic besides turning people into vampires. He's not out to conquer the world (yet), but he has a more simpler task in mind. Dracula admires historians, librarians and researchers (see a theme here?) and he wants what any bibliophile wants: the perfect library. To prevent myself from spoiling the book further, I'll leave it at that. Dracula is like Voldemort in this novel. His very name sends terror into people's hearts and, for the most of the novel, that's all he is: a name. But once he comes, things start getting bad. Dracula and his character is one of the few pitfalls I felt in this novel. I certainly learned a lot about him and the land he was from, but he wasn't in the novel enough to actually satisfy readers. I'll address the possible reason for his lack of appearances in a moment.
The mythology of the Stoker novel (garlic, crucifixes, and stakes, oh my) is addressed and even though it appears to work most of the time, you're never quite sure whether it does work or not. One of the characters is bitten while sleeping in a monastery and wearing a crucifix. According the mythology, vampires can't enter holy places and most certainly can't take a crucifix head on. But, as mentioned before, this line is blurred.
In order to become a vampire in this novel, you must be bitten three times - whether it be by Dracula himself or one of his minions. Once you get bitten three times, you're officially undead and you can only be killed by a stake through the heart or a silver bullet to the heart. No beheading is required, but garlic in the former undead's mouth is. You never see a vampire transformation in full, only hints of it from time to time. Again, if you want primarily supernatural elements, this book ain't for you.
The historical elements are overflowing from this novel. If you don't like history, don't even bother picking up this book. Kostova clearly did her research and some damn good research at that. Her descriptions of the foreign places, history, and local characters are so good, I could see myself in Eastern Europe in the 1930s-1970s. The element of her research is the universal praise point of this novel, so don't expect any shoddy explanations of relations between Hungarians and Turks during the time frame. Kostova goes into explicit detail for almost everything. At times, this was annoying and some of it was dry, but once you get past it, things get better. It also helps paint the picture more vividly so I can't really hold it against her. She did her work and her readers (including this one) thank her.
The novel is written primarily in first person. The story is told from three different persons and their points of view. The first person and the main story teller is the daughter of the historian, who remains nameless much like the heroine of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Though she is the primary storyteller, most of the story comes from her father, Paul, through his detailed letters to her. Through Paul, we get the final storyteller; Paul's college advisor Professor Bartholomew Rossi. Kostova does not clearly differentiate between the three voices, which has been a note of complaint among readers/critics. Though I agree to an extent that she should've labeled the changes better, I thought it was easy to distinguish between the voices. You simply have to pay attention to the preceding events and the quotation marks. If there are quotation marks, it's Paul, the girl's father. If there are no quotation marks, it's the daughter. Rossi's voice only appears twice and his voice is clearly differentiated from Paul's, so there's not a lot of work to do.
That being said, you fall into the trap of the unreliable narrator. There are clearly events or details that are left out of the story, some of them leaving you hanging and wondering why they aren't revealed to you. This also accounts for the few appearances of Dracula. Unless the characters experience him, the reader won't get to meet him.
For those wondering if there's an element of romance, I have neutral news for you. There is romance, but there is so little of it that, like the supernatural label, it's not really worth putting there. Though it is an adult novel, there is little to no sex. There's mention of it, but in very metaphorical, romantic terms. Obviously, we wouldn't learn about Paul's romp with the future mother of the first narrator because his voice is through a series of letters to his daughter. Any father who includes his first sexual experience with your mom in a letter to you clearly has issues. The daughter herself is sixteen and while her time frame is in the 1970s-80s, she has no sexual/deeply romantic experiences; at least none that she tells us. There's a brief bud of romance involving her and a boy at Oxford, but again, there's very little physical or even emotional detail to the relationship. The main bonds here are familial and friendly in nature, so romance takes a backseat.
So, what did I like about it?
I liked the relationships. Though most are formed in a professional way, once the dark secret is shared, the bonds between our heroes are deepened and you see the lifelong friendships begin. Readers can easily empathize with the good characters, not just in terms of their friendships, but in their experiences as well. We all know the anxiety we feel when someone we love is in danger or missing. We all know the sorrow and grief of loss. Our hearts pound in suspense and fear, just as the paper hearts of the characters do.
I liked that I was able to learn so much. My knowledge of Eastern Europe and all subjects associated with it is practically null. This novel expanded my own knowledge and I was grateful in learning the manners, cuisine and customs of Eastern European countries. The locals that the main characters meet are lively and memorable in their own ways and I appreciate their descriptions receiving as much attention as the main characters.
This different take on the traditional vampire novel was refreshing. Instead of making it otherworldly and mystical, Kostova made vampires practical. She made them believable. They weren't all powerful beings, but they had enough unnatural qualities to make anyone shiver. If vampires were real, I'd expect them to be like Kostova's vampires.
Overall, I give The Historian an A.
Thank you for reading! This is my first book review so any and all constructive criticism and feedback is greatly appreciated. :)
If this review tempted you to at least take a look at the book, I've done my job. Please support this author by buying the novel or borrowing it from a library or a friend.