The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

the historian

When I heard of this book, I knew I had to read it. Vampires. Hello! I have been attracted to them since I was too young to understand what it was that drew me to them. Well, I may still be too young to understand that. Blood kinda grosses me out, but Bela Lugosi in that cape? Christopher Lee’s voice? That stare? I always found these men in these roles incredibly sexy. I always wished they were more romantic figures. But… I also like the terrifying vampire, and that is what we’ve got here. The real vampires. The first one, literally. Below is the blurb, follow this link to Goodreads.

Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfo rtunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.

It’s a little slow at first, but I don’t mind a meandering stroll through a story when it’s as well written as this. Kostova breaks a few rules. The main character, the narrator, is very passive at first. Most of the action takes place in a series of flashbacks until we catch up with the present. She is telling us about her father, who is telling the story of how this mysterious book and pile of letters came to be in his library. The letters are someone else’s story. I got a little lost at times, not knowing if I was hearing the father’s story, or the story of the man in the letters.

Have I lost you yet?

Let me explain while trying not to give too much away. Our narrator’s beloved father came across a mysterious book while working in his cubicle in the library. He tries to return the book to the front desk, only to find it on his desk again the next day. Incredibly old, and having only one image, a woodcut of a dragon printed in the middle, it’s a curious item. He decides to ask his mentor, Professor Rossi, about it. He’s shocked when sight of the book does not register interest, but fear. Rossi had received a similar book when he was a young man, in a similar way. The image in the center of the book is holding a banner with a single word in gothic lettering: Drakulya.

Those who have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula will recognize the pronunciation of the honorary name of Vlad Tepes, known as Vlad the Impaler for his preferred method of torture. (And you know that the whole “movie closest to the original story” line is bullshit.) Being a student of history herself, our girl knows Stoker used Vlad as inspiration for his masterwork. It would seem that what this book and Rossi’s research point to Vlad being more than just inspiration for vampires: He was one.

I was hooked. I couldn’t stop turning pages. There have been so many retellings and spin offs of Dracula, but to go back to the source itself and make Vlad not just the inspiration but a for-reals-blood-sucking vampire? I loved it. And the terror ramps up from there. The first 1/3 of the book is good at dealing out the fear. Something is stalking her father. Something is trying to derail his research into the book, just as something tried to stop Professor Rossi. Dim libraries. Sudden trips to exotic locales. After about a third of the book, it becomes a bit of a travel log. I still enjoyed it, but by the 2/3rds point, I started to get bogged down in the minutia. I wanted it to get on with it, get going again. The first third of the book had ramped up the terror and I wanted my payoff.

The payoff does come. There are a few fortuitous meetings of folks who come along at just the right time, and a secret society comes out of the woodwork a little late, but the author sort of addresses these things. She suggests that, if Vlad has evil on his side, perhaps our historians have good on theirs. These were minor concerns. When the fear of vampires isn’t driving you on, there are external forces, governments, rival historians (or are they?) driving the tension. And there are more mysterious books. Tragedy has stalked the wake of everyone who comes across one.

I would like to address one complaint from other reviews. One person went on and on about how the biggest export of Dutch merchants (in regards to the father’s research as a graduate student) was never mentioned. I mean really? I could give a camel’s hump. I want to read a story, not research the author’s accuracy vis a vie a minor factual point too small to affect the plot. What I am saying is, maybe if you are a historian or a librarian, you might be sidetracked by inaccuracies that are bound to occur in a work of this magnitude, but as a reader, I was impressed at what must have been painstaking research. I did go online and check a few things. (I often do that in the course of things. It wasn’t like I was on a fact-finding mission.) And if you want to see the real places, there is an amazing blog called “Picture Book for The Historian.” It has photos from the real places mentioned in the book. It’s not complete, but was clearly a labor of love. I strongly recommend you check it out.

The locations are a visual feast. Just a partial list: the Haga Sophia, Amsterdam, The Carpathian Mountains, Venice, the Radlicffe Camera in Oxford (will make a fan of Eurocentric architecture go knock-kneed) Perpignon, Istanbul, Lake Bled, the Rila Monastery. It’s neverending. Obviously, some are countries, some are places. Please forgive any spelling mistakes or improper use of modifiers.

I found this book a blend of fiction and fact, merged with the shades of history. We can argue that history is itself incomplete or fuzzy in places. Who writes the history, after all? The winners of a given conflict. That is why historians have to go beyond textbooks, to physical places, old books, and survivors. The Historian is unique in that it covers the history of  not one time, but decades and even centuries, great vast empires and religious conflicts. Though it might have been a little heavy on the detail and a little too long, I still thought it was a hell of a book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but it’s more like four stars, two thumbs up and a wink. I see it as something that would be better on a second read.

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8 thoughts on “The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

  1. I read this book about a year ago and reall enjoyed it. I loved the blemd of history and vampire lore and appreciated the nterweaving across the centuries. I haven’t given it a second read yet but plan to at some point.

  2. It’s been a few years since I read it, and it took me a while. I’m a slow reader anyway. Some places really did drag and should have been cut, but I did enjoy how the author detailed the various places the characters traveled to. There were too many coincidences, and the ending made me think, that was it? All of that build up and it’s done in a matter of a couple of pages? It is well-written, but the ending could have been better.

    • It was a bit of a slog, but I was determined to get it done. I liked the ending, tho one part (don’t want to ruin in) did seem a little out of left field…

  3. HA! I thought I was the only one who loved this book. Everyone I’ve recommended it to have wanted to hurt me. But I genuinely loved it. I didn’t like the whole “librarian” twist at the end, but that was a minor dislike. Overall, I went through that book in two days and I still think about it sometimes. Having been to a few of the places in the book, especially Turkey, I quite enjoyed the travel descriptions. I am totally going to check out that picture book you linked to. Really glad to hear there’s something like that!

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