Written by Elizabeth Kostova
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Like any horror fan, I approach new stories regarding vampirism with cautious excitement. And when it’s a tale of the vampire, Dracula himself, my excitement is tempered with both joy and trepidation as it is a subject that has been endlessly explored in both film and literary form — to varying degrees of success. And the sad truth is that it’s more often handled poorly than well. So, with all this in mind, I picked up Elizabeth Kostova’s weighty tome The Historian.
Before I begin to read any book, I first look at three things to determine if it is a worthwhile use of my time. Step one is to look at the title and front cover. The gold lettering on a deep red and black velvet curtain type backdrop is as aesthetically pleasing as the sideways sliver of a picture is tantalizing. It is enough to get me to open the book and read the jacket description, which is step two. Here, with its mention of a young woman, ancient texts, a family secret, a country-spanning adventure, and Vlad the Impaler, my appetite is whetted. Then I move on to the first sentence, which in this case is in a “Note to the Reader” and not Chapter 1. And it states, “The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper.” Now some of the trepidation has eased. Ms. Kostova has convinced me to follow her down this path, and I feel like I’m in safe hands. Sometimes my ritual leads me wrong, and what follows is a disappointment in one way or another. Thankfully, such is not the case this time, and my initial impressions were borne out.
At first I proceeded cautiously, easing into the story as one would a hot bath. The Historian begins with our young motherless heroine, who lives a quiet scholarly, diplomatic life with her father in Amsterdam, stumbling upon some personal papers and a strangely intriguing old book tucked away on a high shelf in her father’s library. The letters, addressed to “My Dear and Unfortunate Successor,” pique both her young mind and ours. Her discovery leads her to ask her father if she may accompany him on his next trip in an attempt to get answers. Thus begins a journey through both gorgeously detailed and history drenched European states and time itself. We learn, through Paul (our heroine’s father)’s short bursts of an obviously painful story, that the book is one he discovered many years ago while attending university. One late night in the library someone left this strange text in young Paul’s carrel. It’s obviously very old, bound in soft leather, and blank. Or mostly blank. In the center of the book is a woodcut picture of an intricately medieval and menacing dragon, bearing a banner that reads DRAKULYA.
We learn the story as our heroine does, in pieces as her father doles them out, interspersed with what little research she can manage without her father knowing. In this way, Ms. Kostova effectively keeps you trailing along, waiting eagerly for the next installment of the continuing story of Paul and his future wife Helen, Professor Rossi, and Vlad the Impaler. Her prose is as eloquent and beautiful as the locales in which the story takes place. In the beginning I paused often to re-read a particular sentence or passage and marvel at the elegance of phrasing and wording. Quickly though, this ceased to be the case as I was swept up into the tale along with our characters.
And what great characters they are! Each one wonderfully nuanced and believably complex. It’s an awakening to learn of Paul’s different side along with our heroine, who must not only struggle with the immensity of the tale he’s telling her, but the fact that he exists not only as her father but as a man in his own right. Like any child, she must learn that there is a Paul outside the boundaries of caring for her. And she must also face amazing revelations about her dead mother and the early years of her parents’ courtship. Ms. Kostova manages to deftly weave this truthful and difficult sub-plot into the larger experience. The relationships within — between husband and wife, daughter and father, mentor and protégé, and friends — are all rich with humanity.
Now, I am not a history buff. In fact, except for a few explosively interesting time periods, I don’t really care for the subject at all. So I have no way of knowing how accurate The Historian is regarding dates, places, and people. Given the level of detail, however, I’d guess it’s as accurate as historical fiction can be. And the historical aspect is handled just as expertly as the fiction. There was only one occasion where I felt burdened by the density of historical information, and that was one brief instance. For the bulk of the story the historical facts are broken into easily digestible pieces and mixed in with juicy tidbits of action and interaction.
Ms. Kostova takes us on a thrilling journey through bustling Istanbul, majestic England, picturesque France, and into the very mountains of what was once Transylvania and Wallachia in search of the truth about Vlad — what he was and what he became. By the end of the story I found myself racing along each page, so eager to find out what would happen next and get to the truth that I was almost skimming over the surface of the page. I had to force myself to slow down and take in what was going on. And it was definitely worth it. This story packs enough twists, turns, and surprises to be constantly entertaining.
I know this is all a bit vague, but I do not want to give anything but the most basic facts away. This book was a joy to experience, and I don’t want to rob anyone else of the journey. The brilliance of the piece is that Ms. Kostova keeps it so realistically accessible that you do not feel at all as if you are reading a fictional tale, something I’m sure she endeavored to do. I must warn the casual reader not to expect all loose ends to be tied and the final result to be a neat little package. That is not what this is. Ms. Kostova, through her heroine, poses many possibilities with very few definites. But that is part of the tale’s appeal. It allows you to hypothesize, which grants it even more realism.
Another warning: Do not expect Hollywood vampires and blood-drenched pages. This tale does not go for the throat but lures you hypnotically onward towards your doom. Indeed, the most terrifying moment for me was after I had finished and sat alone, wondering how accurate her facts on Vlad and his reign were. I pondered for a moment making a quick trip to my local library and checking into it. Directly on the heels of this thought, I was seized by a cold chill. Changing my mind, I shook it off . . . but I can’t help but wonder if one of you, Dear Readers, will think the same thing and press forward where I would not. And perhaps, once you’ve read this tale and taken this journey, you’ll realize how truly creepy that is.
As a debut novel, this is an amazing piece of work. A masterpiece really. I only hope Ms. Kostova continues on in this promising manner because I will be sure to pick up her next offering without hesitation. What more can I say? If you’re a discerning reader who enjoys an intelligent tale of terror that will sneak into your mind and nudge your subconscious, I highly recommend Ms. Kostova and her Historian.