Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Who has not thought about Dracula, Vlad Tepes III, killer of Turks and purported vampire? Bram Stoker certainly did when he wrote his novel, Dracula, and that book has inspired the legions of writers currently churning out vampire novels by the thousands. There are vampires conflicted about their undead and unholy state, vampires seeking redemption and trying to find a way back to the light, vampire rock stars, vampires of every stripe and depth of evil, and Dracula even makes cameo appearances in some of these fantasies. The Historian is not that kind of novel.

Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Elizabeth Kostova's venture into Vlad III's past is also an epistolary novel. All the action centers on a family: the father, a historian writing his dissertation, and Helen, a woman seeking revenge on the man who left her mother alone and pregnant in Transylvania. Helen Rossi is also a historian who began as an anthropologist and then decided to outdo her famous father in his own field of history, and their daughter searching for her missing father through his work. In Kostova's realm, there are stories within stories within stories.

At the heart of the tale is Vlad Tepes III, King of Wallachia and knight of the Order of the Dragon. The Historian is an adventure that takes the reader through history's archives and libraries to find his resting place before he finds them. In some ways, The Historian is much like The da Vinci Code, taking its cues from actual historical documents, but with a much darker purpose. Ancient books with a dragon woodcut at the center of each appears to Rossi, Paul, and several other historians, bringing with it a challenge and a threat. Each of the books is an invitation from Vlad, a historical come hither that begs to be answered.

Bartholomew Rossi's disappearance brings Paul and Helen together for very different reasons. Helen wants to face the father that left her mother and Paul wants to find his mentor and his friend. The search for Rossi is also the search for Vlad, for Dracula's final resting place and time is of the essence.

Paul and Helen's travels begin in America and follow the footsteps of history to Constantinople, Wallachia, Transylvania, Hungary, France, Italy, England, Bulgaria and use actual historical documents. The chase is thrilling and the tales of loss, love, and horror palpably real. History has never been so dangerous or thrilling.

If you're looking for vampire sex and conflicted heroes, this is not the book for you. If you are a  student of history or find dusty archives and clues hidden in folk songs and crumbling vellum or fancy yourself an adventurer with a detective's keen insight, The Historian is the book for you. As a debut novel, Elizabeth Kostova has set the bar very high for every book that follows, and I think she is equal to the task.

I will add that I began the book last year and had to put it down because I was so affected by the scene in Turgut Bora's room. The descriptions left me with nightmares for days and I decided to take a break. When the E-book finally became available in a more realistic (and cheaper) cost, I decided to buy it and take the story from there. The Historian is one of those books in which one more chapter becomes half the book. There is nothing dull or lethargic at any point in the novel. This is literary art with fangs that sink deeply and will not let go--even at the end of the tale.

No comments: