The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Monday, October 31, 2011

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery, horror
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005
Source: Borrowed from Kathryn
Read for: R.I.P. VI

Motherless protagonist-girl-with-no-name (way to pull a Rebecca, here, Ms. Kostova) and her diplomat father live happily in Amsterdam. They share the same passion for books and history, and as the girl grows up, he begins including her in his trips to the great cities of Europe. However, one day she finds a mysterious, ancient book hidden away at the top of her father's shelves, and when she asks her father about it, he only reveals the story in terse, frightened fragments. This story has affected all of the girl's family, and it leads to a monster who is all too historical and real -- Vlad Drakulya, the Impaler.

Before I launch into review-mode, can I just give a quick kudos to Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting such an incredible challenge? I am sad to see it end tonight on All Hallows' Eve (although to be honest, there are four more books in my stack and I am fully intending on finishing them all this year, even though the season will have passed). Evidently I love creepiness, something I never really knew about myself before. Anyway, on to the actual point of this post...

The Historian is a beast -- 638 pages of small print and heavy drama. Therefore, it is highly impressive to me that Kostova is able to hold the thread of narrative so masterfully straight through the pages. She layers three different stories -- that of the girl, her father, and her father's graduate school advisor, Professor Rossi -- revealing clues about Dracula and his connection one dangling filament at a time. I think this is in large part due to her lovely writing. She manages to be minutely detailed without (for the most part) letting the narrative drag. Certain writers (Erin Morgenstern and Diane Setterfield come immediately to mind because their works are the most recent that I've read possessing this quality) use a style that is descriptive yet fluid, wordy in a pleasing sense rather than a choking one. Kostova also falls into this category.

The story itself is also genuinely thrilling most of the time. True to its name, woven into the plot are numerous historical facts, and much of the narrative revolves around research, finding new information about Dracula as clues to the whereabouts of his tomb. In general, I enjoyed this. It was interesting to learn about the middle ages, about the geography of conquests and the rituals of small Eastern European villages. The folk music in particular interested me, although obviously I couldn't hear it -- I spent the better part of a year slaving (and I do mean slaving) over this Bartok piece, the second of "Two Roumanian Dances." (And trust me, it was no picnic for my family to listen to me play this every day. My husband runs from the room screaming when I play it now). (Also, this isn't me. Just some fabulous youtuber, who plays much better than I do).

However, occasionally the history got a bit thick for my taste. While I was the one person in my study abroad group to actually enjoy the Cluny museum in Paris (focus on medieval artifacts), sometimes the constant talk about documents and dates left me slightly confused. However, in general it was fascinating and interesting.

Like the inclusion of so much history, for the most part the plot was stellar but in a few instances failed to impress. This incarnation of Vlad Dracula was amazing. He is frightening, he is suave, he is unrelentingly bookish -- as one character said, "I almost like him" -- but at the same time he is so evil that the sentences describing him elicited real shudders from me. The events leading up to meeting with the actual character are equally chilling, causing me to think twice before entering a dark room and look behind me when I walked down the street. However, some of the events were a bit repetitious and felt contrived. The first time someone was found murdered after trying to find books about Dracula, I was shocked. The second time, concerned. After that, it became predictable. Hmm, they are looking at an ancient document about Dracula and a creepy man is staring at them. I wonder if anyone is going to die...? However, in general it was well done. I was fascinated in the characters' travels through Eastern Europe and absorbed in the relationships between the characters, individuals who formed close friendships and romances throughout the book.

If you are looking for a light, easy read, don't look for it here. However, if you are interested in a creepy, intellectual read that you will walk away from with new knowledge about the middle ages (and a few nightmares, most likely), this is the book for you. And if you are a fan of big books and excellent writing, you will probably love it even more.

4 stars

Warnings: Violence, scary


  1. Great review of this book. One person in our book club threw the book away when she was finished because she felt it was evil and didn't want it in her home.

  2. This is one of my favourite books for all the reasons you mentioned. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. @Marilyn - Wow! It is pretty creepy but fortunately it didn't give me that nasty feeling that means I need to get it out of the house. I thought it was a fun read!

    @Sam - Thanks! I'm glad you did too. It is a fun one!

  4. I was in a dilema to pick it up or not though spooky books do excite me but the book size is what was putting me off it...but you have convinced me and its now on my next book list.

  5. @Digressing Mind -- I hope you like it! It was fascinating. Definitely a beast of a read, but worth it.


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