Publisher’s Synopsis: Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The 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 – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, no exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.
I decided to re-read The Historian at the end of the Bout of Books 10.0 Read-a-thon, when I was dealing with quite a bit of anxiety and felt that it would be nice to read an old favorite. I first read it around 2007, and I’ve reread it (I think) twice since then.
The Historian was Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel; her second novel was The Swan Thieves, which I reviewed here. If I recall correctly, The Historian sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I picked it up, because I hadn’t realized when I bought it that it was a vampire story, and I wasn’t interested in it because of that.
In actuality, this is a vampire story, but it’s not quite one like you’ve read before. It intertwines the story of Dracula with the history of Vlad Tepes and the folklore of Eastern Europe, so that it’s much more a story about a research quest through history than it is about vampires. It is told from several perspectives, but the primary narrator is an unnamed young woman who discovers papers in her father’s study relating to his own search for Dracula, approximately 20 years before. Her father’s story is told from his own perspective (initially through letters, then as separate chapters in his first-person perspective), and another historian’s quest is told through letters to the narrator’s father. It gets a little messy, but I never found it particularly difficult to follow.
One thing that annoyed me quite a lot on this reading which hadn’t bothered me before was the narrator’s naivete. She acknowledges it at the beginning of the story, but she is approximately 16-18 years old during the majority of the narration, and her voice belongs to someone 13-15 at the oldest. It almost seems to me as though Kostova originally wrote her younger, then decided that didn’t work with the plot as it was unfolding, so went back and made her older without changing the voice, just by adding that note at the beginning. Luckily, after the first third or so of the book, the narrator isn’t the primary voice.
Another complaint I have (which isn’t new to this reading) is that The Historian ignores the allure that Dracula has in every other retelling of the myth – and that vampires have in general in all vampire stories. The characters have no moral ambiguity – Dracula and his minions are bad, those hunting him are good, and that is the end of that. It would be far more interesting if at least one person was seduced by ‘the dark side.’
Complaints aside, I really do love this book. The characters’ journeys through Europe are beautifully described and the plot is suspenseful without being stressful. In fact, in thinking about it, I’ll add a caveat to my previous paragraph: the ending is open-ended, and I think that it allows for an interpretation of moral ambiguity, which appeals to me quite a bit. On the subject of the ending, I thought that this one was very appropriate – it wasn’t absurdly optimistic, but it wasn’t Hamlet, either. It was a good balance between good and bad (I just wish it was a better balance between good and evil!).
Ultimately, what sells The Historian for me – and what keeps me coming back – is the adventure of the quest though Europe and the way that it is described. Kostova would be a brilliant narrative travel writer – she evokes a sense of the places that is intoxicating, even if it isn’t accurate (I can’t speak to its accuracy).