Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family's past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe and back to modern-day America where it all began.

When I first picked up this book I thought it was good old historical fiction (don't judge the book by its title as well as its cover, I guess. And no, I didn't read the blurbs on the jacket, the hype was enough to intrigue me). Imagine my surprise when I realized that vampire lore was such a large part of the story! Not just any vampire lore either, the good old traditional lore, steeped in the superstitious culture of Eastern Europe, with frequent references to Bram Stoker's Dracula. I dived right in and while things seemed to start out a bit slow soon I couldn't put the book down. Let me tell you, this isn't flat-out a vampire book. It's more of a historical adventure novel with a search for a missing scholar in the center of it, and just so happens that Dracula himself is the main suspect.
Elizabeth Kostova has done a tremendous amount of research for this book and while more often than not I really enjoyed all the historical background sometimes it got to be too much. There's just so much scholarly-ness a casual reader can take! Fortunately that is my biggest gripe, the rest of it worked: the fact that majority of the novel is told through letters, the characters, the suspence, the detective work the scholars have to undertake, the gradual reveal of the past and the gradual build-up of danger. Kostova really knows how to set the scene and create a sense of the place. When I read about the events set in Eastern Europe I felt that she got it so right, the blend between modern and archaic, the old beliefs that permeate everything, the rich culture stained and whittled away by the Communist efforts to mold everything into their special brand of uniformity.
The chapters where fantasy took center stage seemed almost too surreal after all that historical detail. It all made sense and the horror of the situation was always understated in that old-fashioned manner of Stoker's Dracula but somehow I just didn't expect it to happen quite the way it did. What redeemed this part of the story is the ending. I really enjoyed the way Kostova wrapped things up, although I can see how some readers might dislike it for this exact reason.
I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, adventure and fantasy and if you don't mind a hefty tome that's just as well because this one is huge!


  1. I'm so glad you liked this one as it is one of my all-time favourite books :)

    I agree that it is hefty and there's a lot of historical detail. I think that it worked perfectly for me as I love slow-paced, gothic reads.

  2. I have this one sitting on my shelf waiting for me. Your review makes me think it won't be waiting long. I have a perverse interest in Vlad.

  3. Sam, seeing it on your blog is what prompted me to seriously look it up. I saw that it got pretty good reviews on a variety of sites but those are much more impersonal than a positive opinion of a person who's not a total and complete stranger!

    Dana, I think this book will be just your cup of tea. After all, intense (and in this case potentially unhealthy) interest in Vlad is the driving force behind the whole thing. I look forward to hearing what you think of it!