Monday, December 14, 2009

The Historian

Books about vampires seem to be the thing these days. If it's not vampires, it's zombies. But vampires remain the book du jour, as evidenced by how easy it is to find some when you walk into the Young Adult section of your local library. What's hard to find is books about vampires for adults that are intelligent and interesting and not lust-filled romps or horror-infused terror tales. I lucked out that when chatting with my BFF, Abby, she mentioned this amazing book she was reading. She didn't tell me much about it but because she loved it, I had to read it. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is indeed about vampires, but so much more than that. It's a creepy tale, but also a thriller, a mystery, a historical adventure novel and a love story. It's also (roughly) five billion pages long, but believe me, it's worth it.

The confusing part is how many narrators there are in the book. It's starts out with a young girl (whose name we never learn) who finds an old book in her father's study with an woodcut imprint in the center of a dragon. When she asks her father, Paul, about the book and a stack of old letters that were tucked inside, he slowly reveals the story of his professor, Bartholomew Rossi, a beautiful woman named Helen, and his search for Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Dracula. The narration switches between the girl, her father, the letters from Rossi, the letters to the girl from her father, briefly to Helen and back and forth. I spent the first fifty pages fighting confusion on whose point of view I was reading, but it settled in after that and I was good to go. It's organized, but I just couldn't find the structure to the story at first.

The bulk of the novel takes place in the 1950s with Paul and Helen as they try to track down Professor Rossi after his mysterious disappearance. Helen also happens to be Rossi's daughter that he doesn't know exists. Rossi is Paul's friend and advisor in his graduate program and after confiding his secrets to Paul about encounters with Dracula's followers and his attempts in tracking down his burial site, Rossi disappears with only bloody evidence behind. Paul and Helen go on an adventure to Istanbul and then Budapest in their search, finding historical evidence of Dracula's location and his true nature, all in the attempt to see where Rossi might have been taken.

Fast forward to 1972, our young narrator is on the search for her father who has disappeared after telling his daughter all the background of his search for Rossi, the disappearance of Helen, Dracula's touch in his own life, and his studies since then. The girl has to do some detective work of her own to find where her father has gone, or has been taken to. The whole situation is packed with peril and adventure. When we do get the few glimpses of Dracula that Kostova parcels out, it is absolutely breathlessly terrifying. What's admirable is how Kostova blends what we know of Dracula from Bram Stoker and popular culture with the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes, brutal 15th-century prince of Wallachia (aka Transylvania), otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. This book is one giant history lesson of that time period and location made into a very appealing package of adventure and thrills.

This book has to be one of the most exciting and enthralling books I have ever read. Even if you're only so-so about vampires but you do enjoy a good adventure, it's worth reading. If you're a history buff, you'll enjoy this book. If you enjoy reading about vampires but are disenchanted by the popular version of them right now (basically brooding gorgeous teenagers), you will love this retelling. When I was absorbed in this book and basically incapable of conversation, my husband decided he had to read it and afterward we compared notes. He's not big on vampires, but we had conversation fodder for hours about The Historian. The only people I would steer away would be people who scare easily. This book is not for you. Everybody else, give it a try.


  1. I feel like you read my mind. It has been a tough month and I found myself perusing my shelves for something escapist and fun to read, and ended up rereading New Moon and Eclipse, only to be reminded why I swore I wouldn't. So I've been fidgety and bored while I try to find something that strikes my fancy. This sounds perfect. It's already on my request list. I'll be commenting again after I read it for sure.

  2. I just finished reading it and you said everything I felt about it. I had the weirdest dreams after I started reading it. It was uber creepy and extremely enjoyable. I have never felt that intrigued by the legend of Dracula before. And even though it was almost 700 pages long, I didn't feel any lags in the story telling. It was exciting and interesting the whole way through. Thanks for the recommendation. It was nice to read something that made me feel smarter after reading it, not dumber.

  3. Oooo, this one sounds like a goodie! I might be a little bit of a wimp when it comes to the scare factor, but I'll definitely be giving it a try!

  4. Jenny, I recently finished "The Historian" and am impressed at your synopsis! This would have been a hard one to summarize with all the parallel plots and different narrators. I agree with everything good you said about it. I thought the historical focus was fascinating, especially since my knowledge of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire is so limited. And I didn't think it was too scary because the shifting plots diffused the tension pretty well. Forget the vampires, what creeped me out the most was all the historically accurate torture stuff!

    I only have two complaints. I thought it was way too long. She managed to keep it from being tedious (which is pretty impressive for that length -- my paperback version was 900 pages). But it was still too much, I thought. She could have cut at least a hundred pages out of it without sacrificing anything. I am not afraid of a long novel, but it should only be as long as it really needs to be, and I think this one overstepped it's bounds. There seemed to be some inconsistencies too, but I couldn't tell if they were really there or if it was just so long that I was remembering earlier details incorrectly.

    My other complaint is that the ending seemed a bit anti-climactic. I mean really, it's taken me 870 pages to get to this point and you're going duel it out in 3? After all they had been through over the past fifty years, I expected a more dynamic climax.

    One thing that continues to bother me is Helen's disappearance. It seemed so unnecessary and uncharacteristic of her. And the epilogue with one of the books showing up at the end? I couldn't tell how malevolently foreboding that was supposed to be. After all, Dracula said he'd printed over 1400 of them, so what were the full implications of finding one? (Or one finding her...)

    Definitely a good read overall. Especially if you can put your life completely on hold until you finish!