Having read and been totally engrossed by Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, I decided to borrow two more historically-based fiction novels from my library recently. One was another Kate Mosse offering which I am currently enjoying, and the other was The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.
Kostova's debut, the blurb of this book mentioned that the protagonist's story is linked with that of the legend of Dracula. Being a bit of a sci-fi / fantasy geek, this appealed hugely to me, and it came home with me.
Published by Sphere
Currently available for less than £7 as a new paperback. Various versions available, Kindle is also shy of £7.
Elizabeth Kostova was born Elizabeth Johnson in Connecticut and is married to a Bulgarian scholar (so preacheth Wikipedia). As a young woman, her family lived and travelled around Europe which was part of the inspiration for her interest in the legend of Dracula, as was her father telling her of the story.
Reportedly she insisted that the rights to the finished novel go to auction - a wise move. When such auctions usually raised money in the lower five-figure region, she walked off $2,000,000 better off - and that's before she sold the film rights....
We are told the story from a variety of first-hand voices. Primary among them is a young woman, barely any more than a girl, who discovers papers owned by her father, a historian. Letters, addressed to "my dear and unfortunate successor". Intrigued, although feeling guilty about what she has discovered, the naïve young lady reads on, and finds herself intrigued by a secret part of his father's life that she previously knew nothing of. Eventually she ends up questioning her father, and a story starts to unfold that covers countries, generations, and the truth about one of the most iconic representations of the concept of evil known to history - Dracula.
I expected to like this book a great deal. Gothic horror and the vampire mythology are very interesting to me and I remembered hearing that this novel had been popularly received.
However, to be honest it left me a bit cold. Fair play to the author, she has a heavily researched, multi-layered story told through many voices from different generations, social constraints and cultural beliefs. It must have been an epic effort to create and unfortunately I feel that it is a shame that it didn't have more warmth. For all I was determined to finish it, it was more out of curiosity for the circumstances of the ending than it was for the character development of the young girl we meet in the first instance.
The plot basis is that throughout time, a series of people, scholars, found themselves in ownership of a strange book, empty other than for a wood printing of a dragon. Being of naturally inquisitive minds, their research led them to follow the ancient myths and legends behind the life, death and burial of Vlad Dracula. In turn, they came across "living" proof of vampirism, and became a part of the bigger story behind the myth, protecting themselves and their loved ones as well as secrets.
Whilst the story is strong, the research and setting thorough, I found the characterisation to be one-dimensional and when development does occur, I found that the story doesn't follow these tales through and conclude them very well. Also, the long-awaited conclusion was, for me, too quick, too "Hollywood", and not in keeping with the rest of the story. Also, whilst the setting is not modern for any of the characters, I cannot purely attribute the rigidity of them to their social conditioning, merely just finding them quite flat.
Also, the sheer depth of factual research and scene-setting leaves the book very hard to follow - and being a hefty tome in itself, this doesn't make it a necessarily pleasurable reading experience. I'm not the densest girl known to life, but I much prefer the most flowing, readable style of Kate Mosse, who I also feel has stronger characterisation.
So in conclusion I feel that a good story has been let down by, if anything, the over-commitment of the writer to factual accuracy. I'm reading a tale of the story of Dracula and yet she seems determined to bombard the reader with research in order to counter the fantasy nature of the base tale - to me this is detrimental to the experience of the reader. This is a fantasy tale and should have that feel, and the characters do not develop and flow and build a relationship with the reader because of the nature of the storytelling - fragmented by switching from first person to first person, letter to prose.
So I have to conclude that I was disappointed in this book. I had high hopes so partly this is maybe my fault but it wasn't a pleasurable book to read and I was pleased to finish it so that I could experience the conclusion and then move on to something more. I was left feeling a little deflated and frustrated, although the strength of research and imagination that the author is obviously capable of have inspired me to pick up a copy of another of her works - admittedly in a "3-for-2" offer in a charity shop. I considered it to be the freebie - I can only hope that it makes up for this and proves to be a wise choice.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a vampire novel, but not in the same way as all the other vampire novels we see these days. The Historian is about several people who have researched and followed the myth of Vlad Dracul, otherwise known as Dracula, throughout the twentieth century.
The overriding narrator is the teenage girl, who remains nameless. She is a very clever girl, well versed in history and languages. She lives with her American father, Paul, in Amsterdam; her mother is no longer with them. Much of the story is told by her father as he tells it to her, and there are also portions from an old university colleague of his, Professor Rossi - these are mainly in letter form, told by the father to his daughter in the course of his story. The three stories take place in different time periods: Rossi's in the 1920s/1930s, Paul's (and some of Rossi's) in the 1950s, and the girl's in the 1970s.
They are all searching for Dracula's tomb, traditionally believed to be in Snagov in Romania, but this is not the case. The search for information is difficult and dangerous. They have all become ensnared in the Dracula myth, and the possibility that Dracula may still walk the earth.
The story's timeline is complex, and at times confusing to follow. It is all in first person, and although the main narrator is the girl, her father sections are told to her by him, so he becomes the narrator for these. I'm unsure as to who is the historian of the title - it could refer to all three of them.
There is a fascinating amount of history in the novel. From the little that I know, the details given about Vlad Tepes life in Wallachia (Romania) and his treatment of his own people and wars with the Byzantines are accurate.
The Historian is excellently written. It is compelling, and draws you in - much like the legends that the characters themselves are pursuing. You will find yourself reading it everywhere you can. The story of Dracula is introduced very early on, and so the whole book has an undercurrent of tension and fear running through it. There are small startling events, throughout, and plenty of buildups of the tension through historical research.
The tension and the accompanying fear almost reach breaking point before there is a breathtakingly scary, shocking and surprising turn of events. It took me completely by surprise; I couldn't quite take it in. I was barely breathing in the run up to it, and then I had to read the same few pages several times to really take it in. I was on a bus at the time, and I looked up after reading this section and was baffled to find myself in such a normal place! This change of pace and climax to the very long build up of the novel really sideswiped me, and it is brilliantly crafted by Kostova.
The Historian is not, however, a vampire novel in the true sense of the word. It is certainly no Twilight, and it is not a traditional novel in that it is not really about vampires. It is about humans who are seeking the truth about an ancient myth, yet there is of course an element of the supernatural in the events which they find happening to them. The fear is created predominately by the research, the telling of the old stories and the hints of Dracula within them, and simply by the fact that the characters are delving deeply into something which is almost taboo, something which people do not like to consider the possibility of. The fact that supernatural activity is not out in the open or even that clear adds to the fear, as the hints build up the tension much more than it would if we were simply confronted with a world of vampires.
The Historian is a brilliant novel. It quite literally took my breath away, left me shaken and peering over my shoulder - yet at no point did I consider stopping reading, I could not read fast enough to find out what was going to happen next. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I had never read anything by Elizabeth Kostova until I picked up this copy of 'The Historian'. 'The Historian' was Elizabeth's first novel, and when looking up on the internet about her, it took her 10 years to write it (!), which I can totally understand once I finished it.
'The Historian' centres on a young girl and her father who are living in Amsterdam. They have a comfortable life, a comfortable home, and are, on the surface of it, a happy family. Well, as happy as they can be. The young girl's mother died when she was very young, so it is up to the father to raise her and provide for her, which he is more than capable of doing.
Her father travels for his job on diplomatic trips, and this leaves the young girl at home with the maid a lot of the time. She does travel with her father around the globe, but only when it is possible for him to spend time with her. One particular trips see's her left at home with the maid. She takes a stroll into her father's study of where she discovers a book and some old letters. The book is full of blank pages, apart from the middle of where a dragon has been printed. The book is an antiquity, and the letters are addressed to 'My dear and unfortunate successor'. She does confront her father about what the letters and the book means, but he is reluctant to give her too much information. This is when the book takes on the form of the narrative from both the father and the daughter. The quest for the truth about her mother, her fathers past and the legend of Dracula all start to unravel and come to life!
This is a long novel and at just over 700 pages is a lengthy read, so it's not for the faint hearted in that respect! Aside from the sheer length of the novel I did find it a great read. I love to be indulged with stories of Dracula and the mystery that is included within the spectre of Dracula and all that surrounds him as a figure to be feared (I'm not weird, really!! Well, I may be a little!), and this novel enabled that mystery and suspense to be brought to the front of the class! For those of you who have read Bram Stokers 'Dracula' take a gander at this novel as I am sure you will enjoy it.
Each chapter is short and easy to read, but there is so much information that has to be told within the novel, that even though each chapter is short, there has to be a lot of them due to the information held, but I find that Kostova has been brilliant in this concept. To have short chapters, but more of them really makes it an easy read for the reader. If you are anything like me, I have to make sure that the chapter I am reading is finished before I am able to put the book down. Due to how short each chapter was it made it so easy for me! I wouldn't say that each chapter was straight to the point and you could understand where the story was going with each chapter, but at the most it takes at least three chapters for Kostova to explain to the reader the surroundings, the storyline and the next part of the story.
The transition through the chapters to various timelines is also something that I think Kostova has done with extreme cleverness. You are able to flow through the chapters, jump 500 years previously and have the up most of ease at reading the chapters and the knowledge at understanding what is happening within the text.
What did astonish me with this book is the sheer volume of research the Kostova must have undertaken to write it. The research of Eastern and European folklore is astonishing and the actual historical research that has been undertaken is wonderful. It has been great to actually read a novel by someone who has done their homework and thoroughly. You can see why it must have taken ten years to complete this novel!
The one thing where I was a little disappointed was at the end of the novel. I had gone through all the tribulations and feelings of fear with the characters and the ending scenes were just not long enough for me! I wanted a little bit more of a pizzazz factor. I know I have said that the novel is long anyway with it being just over 700 pages long, but I would have just liked an extra few pages for those ending scenes and a little more in the way of explanations in certain areas. I am not going to tell you where and for what, as that would give the game away, but after you have read it, let me know if you agree!!
Overall 'The Historian' is well worth a read, has great characters within and is fantastically researched. Don't be put off with the length; you really don't notice it when you get through the first few chapters!
Ever since watching Twilight I have to confess to having developed something of a vampire fetish. Whilst browsing in Waterstones a few months back, I noticed that they also had a bit of a vampire fetish going on, and had a display of various vampire books on a 'three for the price of two' offer.
One of the books I picked up was Elizabeth Kostovas 'The Historian'.
Elizabeth Kostova, had not written any books prior to this, and by her own accounts, this book was a labour of love that took many years to research and complete. This, given the amount of detailed history that is given in the book , is entirely believable - I have no trouble believing that this book took years to write .
The book starts being told in first person by --- actually, I don't know who by . You never actually know the name of the leading character in this book . I have read this three times, and still have found no mention of her name. But we do learn that she is 16 years old, and an avid reader of books, especially those in her fathers library . Her father works as an ambassador, travelling between countries, and it is through this that he has ammassed such a huge personal library at home .
The unidentified girl one day finds a file, containing a book, empty except for an old woodcut of a dragon, and several pages of notes and diagrams, on the top shelf of her father library , Interrupted by the housekeeper,she has no chance to read these in depth, and when she questions her father, she is surprised to find him very evasive, and even more surprised that these files then vanish .
Never fear, because her father begins to tell the tale in various stops and starts, interspersed with the girls own research . She learns the legends of the vampires, the story of Vlad Tepes, and the history of Wallachia and it's links with turkey. And then ----her dad vanishes!
It is now up to her to conduct her own research into this ancient folklore, and to discover the whereabouts of her father, not to mention various friends mentioned in the tale who also have vanished in strange circumstances. Will she find her father, and is he at risk of becoming a vampire? What happened to her mother, is she dead, or alive and well somewhere, and if so, what co0uld have made her pass up knowing her daughter ?
The research that went into this book must have been amazing - I learned an wful lot about Vlad Tepes (Vlad the impaler ) that I had not previously known. The author also referenced several obscure Romanian legends - and used her research in such a way that it led me further and further into the story . I wanted to know what happened- in fact, I needed to know what happened, and despite being a huge book of some 700 + pages, I was kept interested every second of the way .
The book switched through various viewpoints quite a lot, which was initially very confusing, however I soon got used to this - and in several passages the book took on a rather conversational tone that made it incredibly easy to read .
I enjoyed this book massively - you can see the amount of research that has gone into it, yet it does nothing to slow the plot of the story, which is excellent and resolves itself in an original and interesting way. A fantastic read, I have to give it four stars - one taken off for never knowing the name of the person narrating the story.
Look at the various reviews scattered around various internet sites and the reception given to The Historian differs wildly. It's a bit like Marmite: some people love it, some hate it. Despite a few minor misgivings, I fall into the "love it" camp on this one.
The central plot is just a little different, for a start. Many people know that the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula was a medieval Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler. But what if fact and fiction became blurred and Vlad really was still alive? If not only was he the inspiration for Dracula, but really existed as a near-immortal blood-sucking vampire? The Historian follows the quest of a number of people to try and sort fact from fiction.
You'd think that a plot line like that would grab you straight away, wouldn't you? After all, the promise of vampires is always a big draw (well, it is for me at least!) But this is where The Historian falls down slightly because it takes an awfully long time to get going. As a result, some people may decide it's not worth persevering with and give up before it reveals its promise. Stick with it, though - it will be worth it in the long run. The best advice I can give is to try and read the first 100 pages or so fairly quickly and in large chunks. These set the scene, so are inevitably slower paced. They also need to be read swiftly, as they start to build the atmosphere and give you some idea of the direction in which the book is heading. Once you've got into it, the storyline really keeps you interested. It may be a mammoth book (over 700 pages long), but it rarely drags and holds your attention for most of the time. True, there are a few places where you feel it could perhaps have been trimmed a little, but for the most part, you will want the tale to continue, even once you've reached the end.
The Historian offers a far more intelligent spin on vampires than the usual treatment and so offers things you might not have come across before. It's clear that Kostova has done an awful lot of research - historical and vampirical - and fact and fiction are combined well to produce a story which certainly contains some strange elements, but always feels very plausible. Again, this is one area which might disappoint certain types of reader. This is not a horror book or a vampire book in the same sense as, say Salem's Lot - there's no mass outbreak of vampirism or gruesome deaths. Instead, it's a story about the search for knowledge and as such, has more common lineage with "quest" novels like The Da Vinci Code (although it's far better and more intelligent than that!)
As already mentioned, Kostova has done a lot of research for the book and it shows, with historical and mythological facts littering the text. Yet it never feels as though these facts are crammed in for the sake of it. They are always relevant to the plot and either lead to a new clue or location, or shed some other light on elements of the quest. They are woven seamlessly into the narrative so that the line between fact and fiction becomes very blurred - always a tricky balance to achieve.
Kostova also has a very readable style and adopts an interesting narrative approach. Rather than telling the story from the perspective of a single character, it's related from a number of different viewpoints. This is achieved by having much of the story told through documents and letters, rather than experiencing events first-hand. This gives a different feel to the book which works surprisingly well. It truly gives a sense that this is an epic story, which has been going on for hundreds of years. The downside to this approach is that if we are to accept that the documents are all written by different people from different eras, they should sound very different. In fact, many of the documents have the same "voice" as though they were all written by the one person (which, of course, in many cases, they were - Kostova herself!). This rather undermines what the author is trying to achieve at times.
Having said that, Kostova introduces a variety of different characters who all feel very real. All the main characters are well-fleshed out and engage our interest and our sympathies. You do actually feel that you want to try and understand every character you come across - even "Dracula" himself. This adds a tremendous amount to the book, as there are no real "bad guys" or "good guys". The only downside is that some of the more peripheral characters can be a little stereotypical - particularly when the book moves to Eastern Europe.
Slightly stereotypical and derivative, too, are some aspects of the plot. Secret societies, vast secret archives, key documents held by private collectors or obsessives are all part of this type of literature and you do get the occasional sense of déjà vu when reading certain sections.
The book also lets itself down slightly with the ending. After reading over 700 pages, the book reaches a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, but then feels the need to add an "epilogue" which hints that perhaps the story is not yet ended. It's unnecessary and superfluous. The tale has just ended at a very sensible place with a good, solid ending and this feels like a badly thought out, tacked on attempt to artificially expand things. It can't even be to set up a sequel, as it's difficult to imagine how there would be enough new material to justify it.
Still, these few minor gripes aside, this is definitely one of those books that is well worth reading. Give it a fair crack of the whip and the chances are you will enjoy it. Just remember the advice at the start of this review: try and read it initially in a few good, solid chunks, rather than dipping into it now and then.
Time Warner Books, 2005
Available new from Amazon from £5.59 or used from 1p.
© Copyright SWSt 2008
An excellent book, especially if your intersted in the story of Dracula. If your interested in books that follow a dark quest then this is the one for you. However, i advise you not to read it at night if your wanting to be able to sleep and to avoid a fair few nightmares.
The Historian is a remarkable book for the vampire enthusiast but dont be fooled, this is no book for the faint hearted.Right from the start of the story the plot is set and such a good idea you are forced to carry on with the plot twisting and turning and dangling in front of you.Elizabeth Kostova delves into the most intriguing descriptions about olden europe to set the plot in, and the detail is such you may get lost here but its worth perservering.It all ties up into a great ending which fully completes the story ,theres no cheeseyness in this story its written as a belivable story ,i dont know what to compare it to as i havnt read a vampire story this good it combines what the author has researched as a possible history for the true dracula into a book i just cant put down i only hope someone makes it into a film.
This Book is really good and before I start this review I would like to say that this book was nominated for the Richard & Judy's Galaxy Award but lost out to another book. In my opinion this book should have won instead as I feel that it is that good and deserves an award. What shocked me the most was that this is the first book Elizabeth Kostova has ever written and published. To be honest I felt as it had been written by a more skilled author, what I mean is that it felt as if someone like J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling or James Herbert or Stephen King had written it. Somebody famous or somebody who had written a lot of books. Obviously Elizabeth Kostova is what I call a new author therefore this being her first book. This story is so gripping it didn't feel like a first book off a new author. SERIOUSLY THIS BOOK IS REALLY GOOD!
Anyway after that little introduction piece of writing up above I might as well try and make you enjoy reading this review and try to persuade you to buy this book for your benefit if I haven't already.
Now this book starts the story in first person which I prefer because then I understand the feelings much better of the person who is telling me the story. She is 16 years old and she finds something secret in her father's library. She asks her father about this and then in the next chapter the 16 year old girl is no longer in the story, and you start reading about the story her father is now telling her. Later on in the book her father carries on with his story which leads into another story. If I have now confused you I'll tell you what I mean... Firstly the girl finds this secret and asks her father about it... Her father then tells her the start of a story where he comes across the same secret... He asks about this to his friend (who happens to be a professor) and the professor tells him about his experience with a look-a-like of that same secret. Then you eventually finish the little experience that the professor had, where the father can't tell the girl about his entire experience because it is enormously long. So he leaves it in cliff hangers and at times you don't know who is telling us their story, the girl, or her father.
Eventually you sort it all out and you understand fully, you try to quicken your pace at reading it and urging the book to get back to her father's story as it is usually left at a perfect cliff hanger. At one time I remember picking this book up at about 10pm and I read about 100-200 pages then the next time I looked at the clock it was 7am and my alarm went off. I got out of my bed and tried my best to leave the book but I was always left at a cliff-hanger so I pulled a sickey just to finish this book!
Okay, okay, I wasn't too keen on it when I picked it up in Waterstones the reason for this was because I have been told it was about Dracula. but I urged myself to read it and I'm really happy that I urged myself to do so otherwise I would never had read this book and if anyone asked me what my favourite book is I would definitely say this book!
If I still haven't persuaded you to read this then you must have no heart or you hate reading. This book is for all readers around the entire world, and I bet you Dracula has also read it! Don't be put off with the complicated starting it is a brilliant story and perfect for every reader imaginable also perfect for non-readers. And also don't be put off with it having 704 pages (longer than the Harry Potter books) especially since you don't realise it's 704 pages, it feels more like 100-200 it is that good.
I promise you, you won't be disappointed with this book.
To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history...
'The Historian' is an utterly compelling read that ensures you don't sleep until it is finished.
The novel is a web of story-lines superbly entwined that update the Bram Stoker classic 'Dracula'. The story cleverly combines gritty details about the splendours of the Ottoman Empire and archaic vampire love that make the entire tale seem too all too possible for comfort.
The story begins when late one night a young women, finds a cache of letters and an ancient book which are all ominously addressed to "My Dear and Unfortunate Successor". This discovery plunges her into a world that she could never have dreamed of, a journey she never expected to undertake, a labyrinth of mystery where the secrets of her fathers past and her mother's mysterious fate are connected to an evil that is hidden deep in the depths of history.
The tale is one of love and horror, obsession and possession deception and discovery. One in which all you believe you know is wrong and just as you think you understand, something changes your mind. More importantly one in which Dracula is very much living!
The novel is written with style and flare and the ingenious plot makes you lconstantly look over your shoulder just to make sure you're alone.
This novel if well worth a read.
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Horror mystery
Price: UK £6.99
I recently finished the book, The Historian, after taking an admittedly long time to do so. At 700 pages long, much of it dense, detailed narrative dryer than Tutankhamun's t-zone, it was a long slog indeed. I forced myself to finish it, however, hoping that the payoff would be in there somewhere - I mean, a bestseller, on Richard & Judy's book list no less(!), surely there must be something more to it. This "thrilling" novel, oft described as "unputdownable" (my husband did in fact finish it on holiday in a week), was so lauded that I did hold out hope it would pick up my interest more as it progressed. It tended to make me want to fall into a deep slumber after about ten minutes, one where perhaps a vampire called Dracula might make an actual appearance and give me a genuine thrill.
This is the first novel of Elizabeth Kostova, published in 2005 to much critical and bestselling success. It took her ten years to write and was obviously a labour of love from the level of detail and research in it. The Historian is very well written in many respects. The descriptive passages of various European haunts of the toothy one are borderline poetic, subtle, never overwrought. This hardly makes up for the lack of narrative punch, however. I have yet to find a vampire novel that does it for me. Even in high school I found Anne Rice (hugely popular in America) slushy Gothic nonsense. That said, it was slick with exciting events, that Lestat knew how to have a good time.
The Dracula of the Historian is more suitably mysterious, which does create some level of excitement for his appearance. Unfortunately even the greatest writer would find maintaining excitement for 600+ pages without the appearance of the central villain of the piece a bit of an ask. By the time he does finally appear, I had lost the will to care. Perhaps if I had forced myself to read the book less languorously, but like the vampiric hero, I had better things to do than devote my time to this draining book.
The narrative jumps around, from the present where the daughter of a professor (supposedly the main, unnamed narrator) is recounting searching for her missing father in the 1970's with a young English male companion (Stephen Barley), to the 1950's, where the girl's mother, Romanian born Helen, is searching for HER professor father, Bartholemew Rossi (who was on his own Dracula hunt in the 1930's, where he met Helen's mother - phew!), with a young male companion (her future husband& the girl's father, Paul), all of it intertwined with the disappearances having otherworldly links with a presumed dead Transylvanian tyrant. So the two narratives are rather similar, although it is the past one that creates the most drama as it is devoted the most time, and the mother's subsequent disappearance seems to be hinting at exciting things to come. Seems to.
Not long after I finished this book, the quite bad film by Francis Ford Coppola about Dracula (the one with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder doing dodgy accents, and Gary Oldman being quite sexy actually), was on, and despite its awfulness, it just highlighted for me all the excitement that was missing from this book. There was no sex in this Dracula. This chap was more interested in collecting dusty copies of books about himself and cataloguing them than committing any naughty ravishing/vampirizing of young innocents. The only victims were those who got in the way of his Dewey decimal system, or would provide a useful service as a catalogue assistant (hence the kidnapping of professors). I mean, all that lurking around university campuses and all he can be bothered with is hunting down middle aged men with leather elbow patches? Pur-lease, this is Dracula? Of frilly white shirts, creepy Bela Lugosi stalking, lusting for the blood of virgins?
I appreciate the author trying to update and make him a more sophisticated fellow, unfortunately she has also made him a rather boring one. What is the point of him being devastatingly handsome if he can't be bothered with human interaction? Especially when throughout the historical research and flashbacks the author describes the sordid history of Vlad Tepes, the Transylvanian ruler who impaled his victims with merciless glee - this positively evil creature does create some foreboding in the book, which to me was never fully realised.
As mentioned earlier, I found the flashbacks to be by far the most interesting part of the book, as it's where most of the action takes place. Helen and Paul's adventures stretch from America to Romania, Turkey to France. There is no doubting immense research must have gone into documenting historical regimes that coincided with Vlad Tepes, as well as the fictionalized version of events that supposedly led Vlad/Dracula to seek shelter/an afterlife amongst certain chosen monasteries. The key linking these people together is a mysterious blank book that seems to fall into the hands of every historian who happens to crack open Bram Stoker/express an interest in the pallid prince. Helen herself descends from Dracula - while no direct evidence is supplied in this otherwise detail obsessed book - aside from her bearing a distinctive birthmark which amongst the superstitions of her village is enough proof.
The story of her mother and Mr. Rossi is a sad one, as there was an element of double dealing preventing him from keeping his promise to her mother and ever knowing his daughter Helen. Helen is an interesting character, full of the bitter darkness the author associates with her Eastern European lineage, and yet also fiercely loyal and loving. The more blank slate of the unnamed narrator's father, Paul, an unassuming American, serves more as an observer of the events than anything. His desire to find his mentor Professor Rossi is strong, but in amongst their adventures he is understandably left boggling at the events of past and present that unfold before his scholarly eye.
The events in Turkey will have the strongest impact on Helen and Paul's future together, as despite meeting members of an ancient order to protect the Turkish king and fight the persistent Dracula and his minions, they seem inevitably drawn towards tragedy. The evasiveness of the old bloodsucker is handled well - too well, perhaps - the only real hint of him for ages is when one of his undead minions pop up to stalk historians/other opposition. They are creepy, yes, and capable of inflicting the dreaded bite - Helen herself is a victim - twice!
This leads to the best sense of foreboding in the book, as the narrator has never met her mother and believed her to be dead until her father goes missing and she finds a number of letters to herself from her mother sent throughout the years she has been gone. The feeling that her mother may be infected/a vampire does create excitement.
The character of Turgut Bora, a Turkish historian, is a colourful one, and for me one of the main reasons this book didn't satisfy in the end. Without giving too much away, he is very helpful in Helen and Paul's travels, along with his ancient order of Ottoman empire guardians. So much time is devoted to the events in Turkey and its historical connections with Vlad Tepes, that in the final confrontation there is a real sense of disappointment that certain characters are left out and other, fairly insignificant characters reappear.
Eventually, after many, many pages of correspondence/ancient text excerpts (far too many if you ask me, at one stage I had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room!) interspersed with the action, we begin to approach the finale. Helen and Paul find, via an old historian (yes, another one!) the Bulgarian Stoichev, links to a tiny village that may have once had links with the vaporous vampire.
And finally we meet Dracula, after 623 pages of waiting. I do apologise if this is seen as a spoiler, but for me this was just so frustratingly unsatisfying. I cannot believe during the editorial process not one person saw this as a potential problem. We get tidbits, glimpses of his minions earlier, as well as some brief flashbacks of Vlad Tepes' regime, but they really go nowhere near to justifying the length of this book. I get that it is historical fiction, but it was also marketed as some sort of Davinci code type thriller, which it is clearly not. I do feel there was a good book in here somewhere, it just got a bit lost in the voluminous layers of history so painstakingly recounted.
The author goes some way towards explaining Dracula's motivations, he himself is quite chatty on the subject and we do get a glimpse of how exciting this book might have been. Despite some satisfaction at actually getting to meet the undead antihero, the manner in which the final act is played out is very anticlimactic and left me going "huh?"
So after such a long slog it was disappointing to say the least. I have heard this book is love it or hate it, and I do know people who liked it so maybe I missed something somewhere. But I sure as sugar am not going back to find it in the 704 pages I already wasted my time on! Is it well written? Yes, which is saying something. I just think it's a waste and nowadays the art of editing seems more lost than Dracula's tomb. My rating is difficult on this one- three stars implies satisfactory, which despite some good characterisation and writing, this book was ultimately not a satisfying read so I have to err towards the lower rate.
Bram Stokers Dracula captured the Victorian Publics imagination on its publication in 1897. A gothic composition of love, death and destruction, Stoker weaved worlds of erotica and obsession together in a powder keg of controversial ritual and vampire lore. To attempt to build on such a seminal piece of literature would seem like pure folly but that is exactly what the American author, Elizabeth Kostova, has done with her book The Historian with mixed results. This book was the first Id read by Kostova although The Historian is her debut novel. Born in New London, Connecticut, she is a graduate of Yale University. Kostova won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress and this, her first novel, was published in 2005, racing to the top of the best-seller charts. It is one of the recommended reads suggested by the all powerful Richard & Judy Book Club" although that wasnt a factor in me buying it.
The Historian is a story told as an unnamed first-person account written in the year 2008 where the narrator is a historian whose father, Paul, unwittingly ends up searching for the vampiric historical figure Vlad Tepes. Discovering an old, vellum-bound book with a wood carving print of a dragon in the center of the book as well as several old letters that are all addressed to '"my dear and unfortunate successor", the young girl confronts her father with her findings. He begins to tell her about how he came to find the unique blank book with the solitary dragon at a library in Oxford during his student years. Unable to discover who the book belonged to; he took it to his mentor, Bartholomew Rossi. Shocked to find that Rossi himself had also found an identical book when he had been a graduate student, Paul learns of the research that had taken Rossi on a journey to delve into the intrigue surrounding Vlad Tepes's final resting place and the folk lore associated with his life and times as well as rumours of vampirism following his beheading at the hands of his Turkish enemies. Returning to the campus to continue his discussions with Professor Rossi, he learns that Professor Rossi has disappeared, leaving a smear of blood on the desk and wall, triggering a labyrinthine struggle to find the missing academic as well as the tomb of the Dracula figure, Vlad Tepes.
The Historian is a story told in a layered fashion combining separate plot threads around the young girls actions in 1972 -1973 when, at the age of sixteen, she began to travel with her father through parts of Europe and, later, from Amsterdam to Southern France with an undergraduate from Oxford, Stephen Barley; her fathers travels during the 1950s, when as a graduate student, he traveled to Istanbul and then parts of Eastern Europe in search of his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi and Professor Rossi's travels in Eastern Europe during 1930. Much of the story is told through letters, excerpts from books and academic literature along with the narrator's recollections of stories told to her by her father.
Where the book works well is its attention to detail. Based on historical facts as we know them, Vlad Tepes lived from 1431 until 1476 and reigned in Wallachia on three occasions i.e. 1448, 1456 1462 and 1476. He was a staunch defender of Christendom, fighting the Turks who were intent on expanding the Ottoman Empire. His fierce reputation came from the way he dealt with his enemies of which the Turks were one although the local nobility or boyars also came in for harsh punishment through impalement amongst other dubious methods of execution resulting in the label, Vlad the Impaler. The author successfully takes the historical data available and builds a sinister tale of undead assistants and suspicious officials spread across the Cold War Europe of the twentieth Century, relating the actions of the characters in the book to the events of previous centuries.
The method employed in telling the story works for the most part although the complexity of the plot strands along with the jump in chronology at times brought demands on my attention span as I concentrated on the latest twist and turn in the tale. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of anachronism with the way Kostova has written the book but I didnt spot any even if I suspect that the original drafts would have had to have been re-written a number of times to remain consistent. The characterization works on the whole with the writer using pen-pictures of her protagonists and it was easy to feel empathy for the lead figures, especially with the sub-plot around Pauls companion Helen and the circumstances surrounding her upbringing. The significance of the book's title does become clear in the closing chapters and is a clever touch, typical in this particular novel.
I particularly liked the mental images painted along the way of rural France, cosmopolitan Istanbul (Constantinople) and the rustic charm of Balkan countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. As the plot thickens and the reader gets closer to the finale, the culture and rituals of the various countries are carefully penciled into the background as the characters continue to unravel the Dracula myth. Technically, the book is quite complex, but the story gathers momentum as the climax approaches and Kostova writes with an eloquence that has endeared her to critics and provided much of the foundation for her initial success.
Where the book doesnt do so well is in its propensity for drama. In the original Dracula book, Stoker managed to charge the proceedings with a dread that came from the evil vampire activities that infected a middle-class England. Along with its sexuality, Stoker appealed to the Victorian need for scandal and desire. The Historian plots a very different course taking the reader on a literary treasure hunt of letters and parchments, half-truths and lies with only the interruption from a troublesome vampire, more-often-than-not, causing mischief in a library, in an attempt to stop the characters in the book from further discovery. In a way, it reminded me of The Da Vinci Code with its carefully crafted conspiracy theories and chain of clues. With a similar sort of atmosphere, chances are it will appeal to the same readership.
I did enjoy The Historian although it lacked a dynamism that its predecessor managed, so often re-imagined through the movie industry. The success of this book suggests that it is only a matter of time before it translates to the big screen although Id be surprised if some artistic license wasnt applied to spice things up. Basically, the book is a thriller in the Dan Brown mould although written infinitely better. For those who enjoy their vampire lore then this will be for you albeit a little tame. Dracula, it seems, was real after all. Whether he was a vampire or not is moot, we love the myth anyway and, in literature and media, he will continue to fuel a thousand ghost stories.
Thanks for reading
Pages 704 (paperback)
Published by Time Warner
RRP: £6.99. I bought this from Tesco for £3.79. Available at Amazon from £3.99 (18p used)
We've all read Dracula, seen the films, maybe visited Whitby etc. But it's fiction! Dracula is a vampire and does not exist, or does he? This novel basically in a nutshell tells the story of a girl, who discovers that her Father has been holdinig back a story of his past full or danger, death and darkness, he knows that Dracula is very much alive and building an army. Can the girl find the vampire but in the process rish herself in order to put Dracula to bed once for all? This book has around 700 pages and is in quite small print, so it could be dificult to read if you don't have excellent eyesight. I found this quite difficult to get into at first but luckily I percified with it and got the rewards of a fanstastic and complicted plot. RRP £6.99.
What if the infamous Dracula really existed and wasn't just the fruit of the overactive imagination of one Bram Stoker? What if he's been recruiting people all these years since his 'death' to help him in his vile work? What if some people figured out that he could actually be tracked down? And what if that search overtook their lives to the point of frenzy and placing themselves in mortal danger? This is the premise of The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova's first novel - and already it is being touted as "a Da Vinci Code for Dracula".
In essence, this book takes the reality of Vlad Tepes, (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Count Drakul, etc.) who was a real person in the 15th century in Transylvania (or Wallechia), and then mixes in the idea that perhaps Bram Stoker wasn't wrong when he made this real person into a vampire. This story then takes the premise one step further in that it also assumes that Dracula has been 'undead' over the centuries and that he continues to prey on the blood of his victims while being hunted by historians throughout the ages.
In order to tell this story, Kostova focuses on a particular group of people who apparently have been chosen by Dracula himself to research him and eventually find him. The choosing is done by a mysterious delivery of a book to each of these historians. These ancient looking books are totally empty except for an elaborate wood cut of a long-tailed dragon, and it is from this initial 'clue' that the historians are essentially challenged to get to the bottom of the myth or truth behind the infamous Dracula.
The group of people in this book are Prof. Bartholomew Rossi, his doctoral student Paul, Prof. Rossi's daughter Helen, Paul & Helen's daughter (who narrates the book) and an Oxford student named Stephen Barley who befriends her. This is also done in two layers, since Paul & Helen are involved in one time period of research - in looking for the missing Prof. Rossi (and Dracula), and the daughter and Barley are in another time period - in looking for the missing Paul who has gone to try to find the missing Helen (as well as Dracula). Confusing, isn't it? Well, since this is done through the retelling of incidents and reading of documents, it becomes quite less confusing as you read it. And although it isn't totally chronologically done - since we jump back and forth between the time periods - the parallel accounts certainly mesh quite nicely, filling out the story into a whole by the end of the book.
Now, I'm not a big fan of thriller or action novels. I'm also not into the horror or mystery genres. However, this isn't one of those novels which will actually scare you out of your seat or even keep you on the edge of it - at least not at the beginning. And despite some of the gory details of the real Vlad's crimes, I didn't find this to be all that gruesome, either. I'd say that this book is more creepy than anything else. I'd also say that the action isn't all that fast paced, either. But when you get about 2/3 through the book, you'll find yourself really wanting to know what happens next and get to find out how it all ends.
Yes, I hear you say, that 2/3 is a good deal to go through to get totally hooked by this type of a book, especially with such a lengthy novel as this one. But don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that most of this is a boring book. On the contrary, what I found was a missive with a writing style that was smooth and suggestive. Kostova seems to have an excellent feel for the sub-text of words and used this to the fullest extent. The language she uses is deceptively simple, and as she uses everyday terms and almost pedestrian choices of words, she's all the while painting pictures that become vivid in your mind. She also makes this seem effortless, which is an extremely difficult thing to do. Don't be fooled by my description here - her language is far from poetic or flowery. It is simply, well, evocative.
Morever, she pulls the reader gently in by endeavoring to make you believe that what you're reading is a true account of a true story. Unfortunately, human nature and suspicion will keep you from actually accepting that there really are vampires, or ever were vampires. And Kostova also knows this and so she does all she can to keep you just on the edge of the reality-fantasy border. For instance, when you read her opening "A Note to the Reader", it sounds like a typical reality check with the usual why she wrote the book along with her thanks to those who helped her. Totally normal and real - that is, until you read the signature, which is "Oxford, England, January 15, 2008". Yes, 2008! With this simple gesture, she pulls you off your guard and you then know you're going to have to guess throughout this book at what is real and what is false.
And yes, she does keep you guessing. For instance, from that opening note we must assume that Paul & Helen's daughter's name is Elizabeth - the same as that of the author - since she identifies herself as the narrator. However, her name is never mentioned, nor is Paul's last name ever mentioned - which seemed curious to me. This doesn't mean that the characters are flat, despite there being some small gaps in some of the descriptions of them. What I'm saying is, that while we may not be able to picture all of the physical attributes of all the main characters through descriptions of their features, we do get the feeling that these people are very real and three dimensional. This is done more through the way they speak (including accents or anomalies in their English), how they act, their writing styles and glimpses at their reactions to what's going on. Through this, we find ourselves feeling empathy for the characters - which is what a good author needs to do.
I have to admit that most of the reason why I read this book is because of the locations included in it. This book brings you to so many places that I've been to, that I just had to see how well Kostova did in describing them. Mind you, many of the descriptions are of the Cold War era, and admittedly, I've only been to these places post-Cold War. Still, I got a feeling that for the most part, Kostova did an excellent job of research into the feel of such places as Istanbul, Bucharest, Budapest and even Oxford. Of course, any book called "The Historian" should be carefully researched, since that's precisely what historians do, isn't it!
So what have we got here? The story of this book is on a strangely fascinating subject - Dracula. The characters are well rounded and you'll find yourself caring about them. The research is well done, as far as I can see. The settings are interesting. The language is compelling and easy to get into. And our attention is kept by wondering what is going to happen, so we're not bored. Sounds like a winner, no? Well... The question then is, where is the emphasis here - on the story or on the characters? I've long believed that a good novel is one that is character driven, and for the most part, I believe that this is a character driven story - I repeat: for the most part. Even so, the plot isn't left to be second fiddle here, either, and I found myself feeling that there were places where the background and history overshadowed the action of the characters. Because of this, I was left with a distinct feeling that the enormity of the research - captivating as it may be - made this to be a bit too long winded and more drawn out then it could have been. I also have to say that the epilogue was more than a little strange, and probably wasn't needed at all. I'm not at all sure why its there, in fact.
So, while I enjoyed this book, especially for the subject matter, writing style and language, I'm not totally convinced that it couldn't have used a touch more editing. I'm giving it three stars out of five, but still recommending it, if not highly. If you're into horror/thriller/adventure/historical books, you might find this an interesting read - but don't expect to be shocked or scared by it, you'll just find it creepy. Not really my style - but, who knows, perhaps it may be yours.
Thanks for reading.
Davida Chazan © April, 2006
Available on Amazon in paperback for £4.09, or via the marketplace from £1.40, in hardcover for £14.99, or via the marketplace from £3.50.
Paperback 720 pages (February 6, 2006), Publisher: Time Warner Paperbacks, ISBN: 0751537284; Hardcover 656 pages (June 30, 2005), Publisher: Little, Brown, ISBN: 0316730319.