Elizabeth Kostova

"The Historian"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUL 15, 2005)

"Then - and this was probably the worst of all the awful things that followed - Turgut pressed his friend's hand to his own heart and broke out in a keening wail, words that seemed to come to us from the depths of a history not only too ancient but too alien for me to distinguish their syllables, a howl of grief akin to the muezzin's call to prayer, which we had heard from the minarets in the city - except that Turgut's wail sounded more like a summons to hell - a string of horror-stricken notes that seemed to arise from the memory of a thousand Ottoman camps, a million Turkish soldiers. I saw the fluttering banners, the splashes of blood on the legs of their horses, the spear and the crescent, the glitter of sunlight on scimitars and chain mail, the beautiful and mutilated young heads, faces, bodies; heard the screams of men crossing into the land of Allah and the cries of their faraway mothers and fathers; smelled the reek of burning houses and fresh gore, the sulfur of cannon fire, the conflagrations of tent and bridge and horseflesh. 

"Most strangely, I heard in the midst of this roar a cry I could understand at will: 'Kaziklu Bey! The Impaler!' In the heart of the chaos I seemed to see a figure different from the rest, a dark clad, cloaked man on horseback wheeling among the bright colors, his face drawn up in a snarl of concentration and his sword harvesting Ottoman heads, which rolled heavily in their pointed helmets." 

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Vampire fiction has become increasingly popular over the last few years. From Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series, to Anne Rice's Lestat and his companions of the night, Charlaine Harris' more down-home, southern-style vamp, Christine Feehan's dark Carpathians, and Poppy Brite's sinister goth bloodsuckers, to name a few, modern novelists have been successfully drawing inspiration from Bram Stoker's classic, "Dracula," which still has a loyal following 110 years after its initial publication. I must admit I have been a fan since I was first terrified, many years ago, by Bela Lugosi, who played the film version of the fanged count. Author Elizabeth Kostova has come up with a creative and scholarly contemporary version of the mythical vampire tale with her debut novel, The Historian.

In 1970's Amsterdam, the teenage daughter of an international diplomat, known only as Paul, discovers an ancient book and a packet of old letters in her father's library addressed to, "My dear and unfortunate successor." The young woman, (we never learn her name), lost her mother when she was just a baby, and has led a very sheltered life, cared for by her father and a housekeeper. When she asks her dad, who is a former history professor, about her unusual find, he tells her that Bartholomew Rossi, a brilliant historian, and his own Ph.D. advisor and mentor, wrote the missives, not realizing that Paul would be the "unfortunate" beneficiary. He also tells her the medieval book had mysteriously come into his possession over 20 years before. Paul was a student then, and one evening, working in the library stacks, he saw that someone had left an old volume on the table, alongside his own texts. Bound in soft faded leather, the book opened almost automatically to the center pages, where he saw a great woodcut of a "dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched." In the dragon's claws hung a banner with the word "Drakulya." Other than that wood cut, the rest of the pages were empty. When he attempted to discover the owner to return the volume, it kept reappearing with his things. Confiding in his advisor, he learned that Rossi, years before, had received an identical tome, in a similarly mystifying manner. The analytic Rossi also informed Paul that Dracula still lives, centuries after his birth. Thus, Paul became history's sleuth, with an extremely dangerous mission. His PI work eventually took-on life and death importance when Rossi disappeared, leaving a spatter of blood as the only clue. Paul was determined to find him.

Over a period of months, Paul reveals to his daughter a series of unusual and horrifying events, all related to his search for his advisor, along with details of both his and Rossi's investigations into the book, and their subsequent search for the truth about Vlad the Impaler or Drakulya - and his hidden tomb.

This is a complex, multi-generational, epic tale told during three major time periods: the 1930's, Dr. Rossi's story along with his historical findings concerning Dracula's tomb, history and vampirism; the 1950's, Paul's story, his research and conclusions on the same subject and the search for Rossi; and the 1970's, involving the daughter's detective work and her search for her father, who has also gone missing. Their investigations takes the characters to Oxford, Istanbul, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Greece and Switzerland. The author brings the varied landscapes to life, and paints spooky scenarios of ruins and old monasteries. Here the historical coexists alongside the supernatural. As all three stories unfold and intertwine, the plot and its resolution inspire a sense of tremendous dread in the reader, when the presence of evil incarnate appears and takes action.

Like Bram Stoker who developed his story through journals, diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings, Ms. Kostova uses letters, memoir and archival material to further her narrative. The historical material makes the preternatural aspects of her tale appear even more credible and, for the most part, enriches the reading experience. Stoker's vampire is based on the 15th century Wallacian warrior, Prince Vlad Dracule and he visited Romania and Hungary to read and research original historic manuscripts and local lore. The Historian is based on the same 15th century personage, Vlad the Impaler, (Vlad Tepes), a cruel and sadistic nobleman who is credited with having founded the state of Wallachia, part of present-day Romania. He was also a military commander in Transylvania, where he owned land and a castle-like fortress. Tepes was one of a number of princes and vassals initiated by the Holy Roman Emperor into the Order of the Dragon, an institution, similar to other chivalric orders of the time. The Romanian prince was particularly dedicated to ridding his country of the Turks and putting a halt to the Ottoman invasion. Ms. Kostova spent ten years researching her novel, traveling widely in Eastern Europe, learning languages and gleaning stories and folklore.

To the author's credit, she tells a whale of a tale, and puts a most original spin on an old, but always exciting story. Her narrative is almost totally plot driven, however, and because of this the characters' development is almost nil. I found Paul, his daughter, and Rossi to be rather flat, one-dimensional figures. Paul's wife and a Turkish expert on Dracula do bring some life, warmth and humanity into the novel. While almost all the extensive historical background is fascinating, towards the latter part of the 642-page novel, the academic research, especially the migratory patterns and travels of medieval monks, begins to read like a dry doctoral dissertation. I love good historical fiction, based on accurate facts - but historic evidence should not take over or interfere with the primary plot. It should enhance it. Long before the author moved on to another topic, I had reached my limit with monastic life, customs and politics.

Ms. Kostova creates moments of extremely heightened suspense, which, unfortunately, she allows to lapse in order to either further the historical data, which is already plentiful, or to go off on a tangent. Rather than prolong the thrills and chills, this approach stultifies them. In one instance, the young woman, the daughter, who is a principal narrator, drops out of the storyline for over 150 pages, right in the middle of a most exciting sequence - she's alone in a train compartment with Vlad himself - in order to continue documenting the travels of the monks, etc. I found these continual interruptions, purposefully diverting from the intense action, to be annoying. Overall, the writing could have been much more taut.

The Historian is a combination of fiction, history, folklore and tremendous research all revolving around a quest of mythic proportion. I found it to be, for the most part, a compelling read. The conclusion is absolutely riveting.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 180 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Historian at TWBookmark.com



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About the Author:

Elizabeth Kostova graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress.
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