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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is a beautifully written book, doggedly faithful to the Gothic horror stylings of Stoker's _DRACULA_. Enough so, that this could be considered a sequel of sorts. _DRACULA_ actually plays an important role to this story, as it is revealed to be more truth than fiction.
That said, this book is dull. No, that's not fair. It's not dull. It's slow, and that's a different thing from dull. But it's slow. Slllllooooooooooowww... If your idea of action is a couple skinny historians wrestling in the back stacks of a dusty library, if a leisurely train ride across eastern Europe counts as a chase scene, if you need something to unwind with after a hectic day of reading federal tax code, then this is the book for you.
But it IS a beautifully written book, and slow as it was, I'd have given it a higher score if it weren't for many, many unforgivable warts:
This book is written primarily as a series of endless letters and journal entries, authored by one set of Dracula hunters and being read by others (to us, I suppose, as a form of memoirs). Actually, there are layers of journals being read here. A contemporary Drac hunter is telling her tale, which involves reading from an earlier Drac hunter's letters, which involves reading from another guy's letters... which I think might even include an even earlier set. There's a LOT of letters to be read. And being that this is a novel, all of them are written with sufficient detail and dialog to carry the narrative. But every once in a while, I was reminded that I'm reading a letter. A LETTER. Who the heck writes a 100 page letter, much less a 300 page letter??? That someone would write with such detail is completely preposterous (much less that ALL of them would), and it always pulled me out of the story.
And clearly, there was no sense of urgency here. Even in the scenes where the guy is being hunted by the vampires. "I can hear them right now, outside my window, they are coming for me... blah blah." Apparently, despite being in imminent fear of his life, he still had the time to write 10 more pages of useless details before fleeing. Yeah, that makes sense.
So, at its foundation, the premise is tantalizing. A mysterious book is found--given--to a character, and no matter what they do, they can't get rid of it. Who gave it to them? (Who keeps giving it back to them?) It is old, and its pages empty except for a dragon woodcut in the center. So they follow the clues of the woodcut... and here's where the book starts to come apart. These blank books are clearly nothing more than MacGuffins, devices with no purpose other than to drive the quest (and the plot). At one point, the printing operation where these books are created is revealed. Nonetheless, even early in the story, they seemed silly and unnecessary to me. Everything in the quest was driven by the woodcut image. Why bother with the rest of the empty book?
The quest itself is problematic. Spurred by the receipt of the books, the researchers begin to investigate, but once they start, shadowy forces commence to interfere. And they aren't subtle: intimidation, vandalism, theft, assault, even murder. The story strongly infers that it was the vampires that delivered the books, and it is the vampires that are clearly trying to stop the investigations. What the heck is that all about?
Ultimately, it is explained, although you have to wade through nearly 85% of the book to reach it. Dracula finally makes his appearance, and like a moustache-twirling movie villain, he lays out his entire nefarious scheme. And it's preposterous. Well, at the very least, I found it deeply unsatisfying and disappointing. You'd think a guy who's lived 500 years would understand human nature better and could come up with a better plan (or have higher goals). I couldn't help but sense that the author had run out of steam.
But even more frustrating was, as I started this book, my very first question was, "If the vampires handed out the book, why are they trying to stop these people?" And at every point throughout, I kept looking for answers. But you know who never did? The researchers! Not once, ever, did they ever ask, "Hey, why did they give us this and then are trying to stop us?" And these are supposed to be brilliant researchers and historians and scholars and people a lot smarter than I. I can't explain this other than that either it was a failure by the author (deliberate or not) or everyone one of her characters for some reason suffered from the same undiagnosed form of brain damage that fundamentally hindered their ability to do their jobs. (As mentioned earlier, Drac does explain himself, but his explanation is stupid.)
Drac himself was a bit of a disappointment. After so much build up on how evil and cool this guy is, when we finally meet him, I was underwhelmed. So was the author, it seemed, as she was unable to convey to him any sense of power or dread. She could only simply tell us "He was powerful," "He was dreadful," "This is one seriously scary dude."
And his ultimate undoing... well, suffice to say, for a guy in life who had an uncanny knack for escaping tight situations and avoiding ambushes, I guess he lost his edge in his undeath.
Probably the most interesting narrative is the girl who begins the story, but Kostova seems to forget her right after she and her friend Barley begin their journey. She returns ever so briefly and clumsily to their journey and budding relationship.
Still, overall I liked the book. I probably wouldn't read another by this author, but the plot kept me fairly engaged even while the narrative style proved rather annoying.
My interest in Dracula and Romanian lore, first peaked after reading Bram Stoker's Dracula. Then, ironically, I ended up marrying my husband, who was born and raised not 30 minutes from Castelul Bran, or better known as Dracula's castle.
Enough about me, and onto the book review...
This book was brilliantly written.
I loved everything about this book. Yes, it is long, and takes a bit for the plot line to pick up in the beginning. But, the endurance reading is totally worth it. Kostova doesn't waste any words that she wrote, all having meaning and importance. For anyone who likes a meaty text, packed full of detail, historic locations and all-encompassing plot lines, this is for you.
And please note, this is not about the Twilight-type vampires that are so prominent in today's literature. This is a twist off of the original "Dracula" novel, dedicated to the story of Vlad Tepes of Wallachia.
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