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The Historian Hardcover – June 14, 2005
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If your pulse flutters at the thought of castle ruins and descents into crypts by moonlight, you will savor every creepy page of Elizabeth Kostova's long but beautifully structured thriller The Historian. The story opens in Amsterdam in 1972, when a teenage girl discovers a medieval book and a cache of yellowed letters in her diplomat father's library. The pages of the book are empty except for a woodcut of a dragon. The letters are addressed to: "My dear and unfortunate successor." When the girl confronts her father, he reluctantly confesses an unsettling story: his involvement, twenty years earlier, in a search for his graduate school mentor, who disappeared from his office only moments after confiding to Paul his certainty that Dracula--Vlad the Impaler, an inventively cruel ruler of Wallachia in the mid-15th century--was still alive. The story turns out to concern our narrator directly because Paul's collaborator in the search was a fellow student named Helen Rossi (the unacknowledged daughter of his mentor) and our narrator's long-dead mother, about whom she knows almost nothing. And then her father, leaving just a note, disappears also.
As well as numerous settings, both in and out of the East Bloc, Kostova has three basic story lines to keep straight--one from 1930, when Professor Bartolomew Rossi begins his dangerous research into Dracula, one from 1950, when Professor Rossi's student Paul takes up the scent, and the main narrative from 1972. The criss-crossing story lines mirror the political advances, retreats, triumphs, and losses that shaped Dracula's beleaguered homeland--sometimes with the Byzantines on top, sometimes the Ottomans, sometimes the rag-tag local tribes, or the Orthodox church, and sometimes a fresh conqueror like the Soviet Union.
Although the book is appropriately suspenseful and a delight to read--even the minor characters are distinctive and vividly seen--its most powerful moments are those that describe real horrors. Our narrator recalls that after reading descriptions of Vlad burning young boys or impaling "a large family," she tried to forget the words: "For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth." The reader, although given a satisfying ending, gets a strong enough dose of European history to temper the usual comforts of the closing words. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Considering the recent rush of door-stopping historical novels, first-timer Kostova is getting a big launch—fortunately, a lot here lives up to the hype. In 1972, a 16-year-old American living in Amsterdam finds a mysterious book in her diplomat father's library. The book is ancient, blank except for a sinister woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya," but it's the letters tucked inside, dated 1930 and addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor," that really pique her curiosity. Her widowed father, Paul, reluctantly provides pieces of a chilling story; it seems this ominous little book has a way of forcing itself on its owners, with terrifying results. Paul's former adviser at Oxford, Professor Rossi, became obsessed with researching Dracula and was convinced that he remained alive. When Rossi disappeared, Paul continued his quest with the help of another scholar, Helen, who had her own reasons for seeking the truth. As Paul relates these stories to his daughter, she secretly begins her own research. Kostova builds suspense by revealing the threads of her story as the narrator discovers them: what she's told, what she reads in old letters and, of course, what she discovers directly when the legendary threat of Dracula looms. Along with all the fascinating historical information, there's also a mounting casualty count, and the big showdown amps up the drama by pulling at the heartstrings at the same time it revels in the gruesome. Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty: it's hard to imagine that readers won't be bitten, too.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top Customer Reviews
First the good: All of the characters in this tale are very believable, including Vlad Tepes himself. I really enjoyed the historical facts surrounding the Ottoman Empire and Eastern Europe that Kostova weaved into her tale. I also loved the way she used letters to reveal the more thrilling aspects of the story bit by bit. This kept me in that "I'll just read ten more pages" mode on many a late night.
Now for the problems: The first 300 pages of this book were very compelling and hard to put down. Somewhere between page 300 and 450 it began to feel like Kostova had an old graduate school dissertaion on the migration patterns of monks in the 15th century lying around so she decided to work it into the story. Wow did that slow the pace... I don't have a problem with the storyline taking the characters on a search for the history of these monks, its just that Kostova occasionally strayed across the line between entertaining fiction and dry academic research.
All of that said, my opinion as a librarian and avid reader of such stories is that this is an excellent book, well worth reading. I am sure that it will have wide appeal and is no doubt deserved of its huge marketing push. I have heard that there is already talk of a movie...
The premise is certainly promising - the search for the historical Dracula. The story is told through three main narratives: that of the young girl that opens the novel; her father; and her father's mentor. The structure is an homage to Bram Stroker's DRACULA, which is also told through letters and multiple narratives. Unfortunately, the author may have been overly ambitious in this endeavor, as she failed to pull the whole thing together. The result is, if you're familiar with the genre, that you notice the structure too much, and so you are able to predict what will happen next long before the author writes it. For a mystery novel, that kills the suspense. It's a bit like seeing the boom mike hanging over a scene in a movie. You want to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself into the novel, but the boom mike keeps getting in the way.
Also, to pull off such a narrative structure, you need good, distinct characters. Unfortunately, none of the characters really stand out for me.Read more ›
"The Historian" is an epic work of historical fiction that sweeps across Europe during the four decades between 1930 and the mid 1970s. It just also happens to involve the Dracula myth and a good dose of suspense. Now, some people may object to me calling this novel a work of historical fiction because it is mostly fiction and contains very few real characters. That is true, but Kostova does such an amazing job of making the Dracula myths come alive that you can't help feeling that the legends and the story are real. Her research is stunning in its attention to detail and the wide range of topics Kostova must've studied. A previous reviewer slightly criticizes Kostova for spending too many pages describing the pilgrimage routes of monks hundreds of years ago. While sections like that do slow down the pace of the novel somewhat, they don't distract from it. The last book that I read that combines elements of history, suspense, and great characters as well as "The Historian" was "The Devil in the White City".
Readers I must warn you that if you are hoping for a romance novel, this is not it. There are several love stories woven within and through the primary story, but as compelling as they may sometimes be (I wept at page 526), they take a back seat to the search for the "Dark Prince".
This is an adventure but not in the usual sense as there is really not much action (until near the end). Remember, these are historians so you can imagine their method of searching. I did not find this novel "Genuinely terrifying" as quoted from the Boston Globe but I agree it is "A thrill ride through history" as stated by the Denver Post. If you love history, traveling, and emersion into other cultures, you will love this book. It will feel as if you have been on an exotic vacation.
Warning, I found the first half of the book difficult to read. Elizabeth Kostova is a stickler for details (possibly in the excess) and I found it hard to form attachments to the characters.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This was my second time reading the book- certainly provided insight into historical events not covered in a traditional History class. Read morePublished 5 days ago by Karen Lynch Mattioli
Everytime I picked up this book to read it I feel asleep. For me that is a sure sign that this is not a book that I need to read unless I'm having
problems sleeping. Read more
This book was a 10 year project and it shows. The entire book was like a great chocolate croissant.Published 13 days ago by J. Underwood
This immediately became my absolute favorite book. Amazing. I can't recommend it ENOUGH.Published 17 days ago by hayley smith
A very good book. This is not a quick read. Lot of historical information,but very interesting.Published 20 days ago by Carolyn norris
I read this book a few years ago and couldn't put it down. I've always thought about reading it again one day. Well, the day has come. Read morePublished 27 days ago by SeaMist