Samantha’s CBRIII Review #32: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

I added this to my “to-read” list years ago, and when I decided to check it out, I had to remind myself of what it was and why I had added it. My initial thought was “Oh no. Another vampire book? Why did I want to read this?” I’m kind of over the whole vampire thing, you see, and have been since Anne Rice found God again, or whatever. The whole Twilight phenomenon just makes me want to stake people. But ANYWAY. I decided that I must’ve had a good reason for adding the book to my list, and picked it up from the library anyway. Good thing.

The Historian is multiple stories in one, each of them tracking the alleged movements of Vlad Tepes (the historical basis for Dracula), who may or may not actually be a vampire, and still causing trouble in the twentieth century. The main narrator is a woman who, as a young girl, gets drawn into her father’s sad tale of the search for Tepes, and ultimately becomes part of the story herself. Her father, Paul, was a student of history when he comes into possession of a mysterious volume that draws him into the Dracula legend. No sooner has he discovered that his advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, owns a similar book and has a similar obsession, than Rossi mysteriously disappears. Suddenly, Paul finds himself racing across Europe and the Middle East, hoping to find, if not the truth of the legend, at least Professor Rossi still alive. His companion in these endeavors is a young woman who claims to be Rossi’s illegitimate daughter, another seeker of information on Vlad Tepes. What starts out as a search for a missing friend becomes a strange adventure to determine whether or not Dracula really does exist, and if he does, whether or not he can be destroyed.

The father’s tale is told in flashback to his daughter (if we ever learn her name, I missed it), and the two stories weave together toward a not-unexpected final showdown. The strength of the novel is not in the story itself, which is moderately predictable, but in the language and the detail through which the reader follows the travels of the vampire hunters. Paul and Helen Rossi travel to Istanbul, to Romania, and to Bulgaria; Paul and his daughter travel throughout Europe, and every location is described with great specificity. Nearly every chapter ends with either a cliff-hanger or a shocking discovery (!), but for the most part, these devices add to the tension and suspense rather than being cheesy.

I think my favorite aspect of this novel was the way in which it draws a great deal of inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the novel, not the awful movie), which is one of my favorites. Not only do the characters in the novel make many references to the book, but also a lot of the imagery and language that Kostova uses is directly influenced by Stoker. At one point she actually described someone as breathing “stertorously,” and I nearly chortled with glee. Beyond the literary inspiration, though, the use of history and foreign custom makes this novel a really great read. It starts out a bit slowly, but by the end I was getting back to work late after lunch because I just had to finish that next chapter! It’s not really scary or gory, per se, but it does have some pretty tense moments here and there. If you, like me, are a bit fed up with the more modern-day representations of vampires, I would still suggest that you give The Historian a try; it’s a good novel that happens to be about a vampire, rather than a “vampire novel”. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Samantha’s CBRIII Review #32: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

  1. Great review! I read it quite a while ago, but I really liked this book, too. I haven’t gone near any of the Twilight books – I couldn’t even get through the firm page when flipping through it at Target. I love Stoker’s Dracula – read it as a kid after seeing the Frank Langella movie. : ) But loved it even more than the movie – the first epistolary novel i had ever read.

  2. I loved this book – a real vampire book! I found wonderfully unsettling and I also loved the constant presence, love and respect for libraries and archives!

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