The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Historian is like a cross between The Da Vinci Code and Dracula. It’s partially an update of Stoker’s classic tale, utilizing the scarier-than-fiction stories about Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes-the man upon whom Dracula’s legend is based. It’s also about a Robert Langdon-esque race to find priceless historical relics…before the bad guys get to them first. Throw in some father-daughter bonding, centuries-old secret societies waging quiet but brutal war and an old fashioned-love story, and you’ve got a pretty thick book.

If that sounds intriguing, you’ll probably like it. If not…it’s probably best to quit while you’re ahead.

In 1972 Amsterdam, a teenage girl discovered a strange letter in her father’s library:

My dear and unfortunate successor:

It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself — because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read. If you are not my successor in some other sense, you will soon be my heir-and I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil. Why I myself inherited it I don’t know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually-perhaps in the course of writing to you or perhaps in the course of further events.

When she showed the letter to her father, he becomes upset, but gradually and haltingly told her the truth.  The letter was written by his former professor. The professor became convinced that Vlad Tepes really was Dracula-that he was undead. Soon after vowing to hunt Vlad down, the professor disappeared. The father went looking for him, and was still traumatized by what he saw.

The Historian is about three interconnected stories: the professor, the father and the daughter. All of them went searching for Dracula, and all got way more than they bargained for (and yes, I’m being intentionally vague here). Our heroes travel all over the world in search for the next clue that will bring them closer to what they seek.

And boy, do they travel. Every chapter or so, they make it to a new location, only to be told their princess is in another castle. So they pack up and look again-in France, in Bulgaria, in Turkey, and on and on. At a hefty 704 pages, a lot of this book felt like treading water, like the author couldn’t think of a better way to get her characters where she needed them. Towards the end, I wondered if she was getting paid by the word, because why else was I being treated to pages upon pages of the migration patterns of 15th century monks?

I appreciated the work that clearly went into The Historian without actually liking it. It was too long. The writing could be overly-fluffy, and the dialogue unbelievable. One professor says “You show extraordinary insight into the nature of historical research, especially for one of your years.” Another, “Excellent questions, as usually, my young doubter.” It took me out of the story. The book uses letter writing to drive the plot, which can be a good narrative device. But these letters are insane…dozens of pages, full of inane and unnecessary details that no one would ever write about. And I’m aware that I’m complaining this vampire book wasn’t being realistic enough…BUT THIS VAMPIRE BOOK WASN’T BEING REALISTIC ENOUGH.

Ultimately, this book wasn’t terrible, but it did feel like a waste of time. If you want vampires, go read Dracula. If you want to know more about Tepes, read Vlad the Impaler. If you want adventure, go tackle The Lord of the Rings again. There’s really not much to take from The Historian.

 

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