Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Book Review: The Historian

I’m not a big fan of horror novels, but I’ve read my fair share of vampire fiction, everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and even Twilight, if for no other reason than to see what all the hype was about. This Halloween, however, has me thinking about one of the more unique and intriguing vampire-related novels I’ve read: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. My review follows after this image of the book’s cover.

The Historian takes Bran Stoker’s Dracula and links him to his historical inspiration: Vlad III, the fifteenth century prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad the Impaler. The narrator is a woman who, at age 16, stumbled across the journal of her father, the story’s protagonist, a former diplomat and professor named Paul. Most of the book is then told from Paul’s point-of-view, either from his journal or conversations with his daughter. It begins when Paul, as a graduate student, discovers a strange book that someone left on his desk in the university library: a small tome the size of a prayer missal with vellum pages that opened to the center, bearing the woodcut design of a winged dragon and a single word: “Drakulya.” The rest of the book’s pages are blank, but they reek of decay and the smell of corrupted flesh.

Paul shows the book to his friend and advisor, Prof. Rossi, who happens to possess a similar copy, both printed in Central Europe in about 1512. Rossi claims the copy was left on his desk as a graduate student, just like Paul’s, and it led him to conduct research on Vlad the Impaler, a tyrant and enemy of the Ottoman Turks. Rossi traveled all the way to Istanbul where he discovered a chilling truth: Vlad Dracula is still alive. 

Not long after this revelation, Rossi disappears and the implication is that Dracula, or one of his minions, has taken him. What ensues is Paul’s quest to find his mentor, and to do so, he must find the secret location of Dracula’s tomb. Paul is aided in his quest by a dark-haired beauty named Helen, who turns out to be Rossi’s daughter. Their relationship, and ultimately, lover affair, enriches the story, but it’s their attempt to unravel the historical mystery behind Dracula’s whereabouts that I enjoyed the most.
Paul and Helen’s journey takes them to communist Romania, Istanbul, and ultimately Bulgaria. It is a quest through libraries and ancient tomes, all grounded in the history of Vlad the Impaler and his enmity with the Ottoman Turks. These types of historical mysteries, steeped in religion and legend, are my cup of tea, and despite the novel’s considerable length (my paperback is 676 pages), it captivated me until the end. There are ample dollops of action and suspense, as the vampire’s minions are hunting the heroes, and the ominous threat of Dracula seems ever present. Eventually, the storyline of Paul’s daughter merges with the main storyline as she too gets drawn into the quest to find Dracula’s tomb. Overall, The Historian is a beautifully written novel, with much to offer for both history lovers and Dracula fans, and it stands among my favorites.


HelenR said...

While this post is a little late, I thought I would chime in. The Historian is a haunting historical thriller. It's a great novel and one of my favorites to date!

Joseph Finley said...

HelenR - it's never too late to comment! I share you thoughts on this one!

Victoria Hannah said...

Sorry this is year's late but I just found this post and as I have recently re-read the book I thought I'd chime in.

As a real Historian I was very impressed with it's authenticity to historical research and the life of a historian. Often popular culture thinks historians (especially those of us who have achieved a Master or Doctorate in the field) know everything about every subject (hint new TV Show Timeless, Lucy-the historian character-can NOT have written a monograph on Lincoln and been an expert in the Hindeburg disaster, both separate areas). This book showed how authentic and super specialized historical research becomes the higher and higher levels one achieves in academia. Therefore Paul would only know a sketch amount of information about Vlad III and be scared out of his mind to have to speak authoritatively on him when his field is so clearly not that (being Merchant and Shipping Guilds in 1600 Flanders--totally different). Moreover, being a historian, I have a clue as to how historical documents are to read and I was highly impressed with the letters offered by Kostova written by the Arch-Metropolitan contemporary of Vlad III. They felt authentic and I was even fooled into believing they WERE REAL.

If you want a similar feel with a similar authenticity to period and historical research I highly offer the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. You won't be sorry.

Joseph Finley said...

Victoria - thanks for the comment! It's great to learn people are enjoying some of the older posts. I agree that the "Historian" was fantastic, and I'm going to check out the "All Souls Trilogy" you recommended.