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A Great Story - Let Down By Its Execution?
The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova
Member Name: missrarr
The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova
Advantages: Great plot, and does motivate the reader to continue
Disadvantages: Ending feels too short and too cold for me, and the narrative is stunted
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.
Summary: A brilliantly researched book but the writing style wasn't to my taste