Book Review: “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianAn ancient book filled with blank pages. No title page; no story between the covers. Only the two center pages have been impressed with ink, a woodcut print of a dragon carrying a banner with a single word; DRAKUYLA.

This is the book that a 16-year-old girl discovers on the very top shelf of her father’s library, along with a manila envelope of papers. The mystery of the strange book deepens with the words she reads on the first page she pulls from the envelope. It is a letter, with a greeting that leaves her feeling quite unsettled: “My dear and unfortunate successor.”

Author Elizabeth Kostova has woven a tale of intrigue that by no means should be labeled “typical” of any other Dracula or vampire novel. The further you travel down the winding trail of this captivating story, the more you will appreciate the significance of the title Kostova chose for her debut novel. By the time you reach the end of its 642 pages, you may very well want to read it through again to see the clues you may have missed along the way.

Kostova skillfully unfolds her story through the sharing of a father with his young daughter over time. He tells of how the book mysteriously appeared on his library reading table one evening when he was a graduate student. As the story progresses, she learns of one unusual event after another which follows her father’s taking possession of this ancient volume, including his receiving of the manila envelope of papers with the strange letter, whose greeting continues to haunt her. The spell of intrigue, which had captured an inquisitive young historian, now passes on to his daughter. Just as her father had done, she began her own research into the historical figure of the Dracula legend, Vlad the Impaler.

The gruesome realities of this vicious European ruler are not glossed over with the telling of this story. As sometimes is the case, the cruelty written on the pages of history books can bring greater horror than our more sanitized imaginations, if for no other reason than the fact that the characters involved are not fictional. The question that shakes the nerves of even the most reason-based researcher is this: Does the evil of Vlad the Impaler still live as one of the undead? Is his thirst for blood unquenched?

The quest to find the answer to these questions takes us on travels to Paris, Istanbul, Budapest and, of course, Romania. The author provides us with historical views of these areas and the clashes of power that fought over their ground. In particular, we are schooled in the battles and culture of the Ottoman Empire, which marched on the homeland of Vlad the Impaler during the height of his power.

Throughout our travels, new characters are introduced who add new pieces to the puzzle, sometimes bringing more light to the mystery and other times raising new questions. The reality of the existence of the undead and their thirst to add more to their numbers, however, is soon without question.

In spite of the skill with which the author draws you in and keeps you turning the pages of her novel, you may be disappointed at the simplistic answers she provides to a couple of the riddles that have puzzled you through the reading of many chapters. She could have done better. But the stealth with which she keeps the majority of answers hidden should cause you to forgive her the weaker points in the story.

All the great elements of story will be found within the pages of “The Historian,” intrigue, suspense, romance and the ongoing battle of good against evil. The legend of Dracula is reinterpreted in a whole new fashion. While still drawing in much of the traditional lore like silver bullets and stakes through the heart, entrance into the realm of the undead requires more than a single vampire bite in Kostova’s story. Dracula himself, though always in the background, does not make an appearance in character until the very final chapters of the book.

For lovers of suspense, “The Historian” will keep you guessing as you progress through the book. The techniques the author has employed to bring in the perspectives of different characters, while keeping it a narrative from the historian’s daughter, are quite ingenious. Well worth the read for most anyone who enjoys a good tale.

(Originally published in HerLife Magazine Dec 2013)

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