BookBrowse Reviews The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova X
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 656 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 688 pages

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Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty. 1st Novel

From the book jacket: Late one night, exploring her father's library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor," and they plunge 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 inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.

The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known — and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula.

Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself—to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.

What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler have to do with the modern world? Is it possible that the Dracula of myth truly existed—and that he has lived on, century after century, pursuing his own unknowable ends?

Comment: The Historian, described by Salon as a 'hypnotic yarn, saturated in authentic history and eerie intrigue', was predicted to be one of the big books of 2005 - and it was.  Although the subject matter (vampires and the like) would normally classify a book into the horror genre, The Historian is not a particularly scary read (in reference to her novel, Kostova says, "I promised myself that only a cup of blood would be spilled.)  Instead, the book is steeped in historical and anthropological detail..  Certainly there are many moments of tension and an overwhelming sense of impending dread, but Kostova doesn't stoop to the methodology used by so many modern thriller writers - short chapters, each ending with a breathless cliff-hanger forcing the pulse-rate up and, more often than not, the credibility down.  Instead we get a challenging, substantial novel that many serious readers will love. 

Kostova leads us on an intellectual quest across Eastern Europe in the 1930s, '50s and '70s, and also further back in time to the heights of the Ottoman Empire when Vlad the Impaler was famed as a brilliant military leader and defender of his people against the Turks, but also notorious as the slaughterer of more than 20,000 of his own people by appalling sadistic means.

Inevitably some reviewers compare The Historian to The Da Vinci Code - not that the two books have much in common, but simply because every book published in the past couple of years that explores controversial parts of history has had to bear comparison to Brown's book.  In writing style The Da Vinci Code and The Historian could not be more different.  However, they do have one thing in common, both extrapolate historical facts and hearsay into compelling fiction - the difference is that, as one reviewer puts it, The Historian is like a fine Burgundy to The Da Vinci Code's over-caffeinated diet Coke; also while they both explore areas of controversy, The Historian is likely to upset far fewer people and stand up to critical inspection better than The Da Vinci Code - after all, how many people out there are going to complain about Vlad the Impaler being misrepresented!

As Publishers Weekly says, "Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty: it's hard to imagine that readers won't be bitten, too!"

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2005, and has been updated for the October 2006 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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