Summary and book reviews of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 656 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 688 pages

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Book Summary

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? Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions, a relentless tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present, with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful—and utterly unforgettable.

"To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history...."

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? The answers to these questions cross time and borders, as first the father and then the daughter search for clues, from dusty Ivy League libraries to Istanbul, Budapest, and the depths of Eastern Europe. In city after city, in monasteries and archives, in letters and in secret conversations, the horrible truth emerges about Vlad the Impaler's dark reign—and about a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive down through the ages.

Parsing obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions—and evading the unknown adversaries who will go to any lengths to conceal and protect Vlad's ancient powers—one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions, a relentless tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present, with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful—and utterly unforgettable.

Chapter 1

In 1972 I was sixteen—young, my father said, to be traveling with him on his diplomatic missions. He preferred to know that I was sitting attentively in class at the International School of Amsterdam; in those days his foundation was based in Amsterdam, and it had been my home for so long that I had nearly forgotten our early life in the United States. It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the "Note to the Reader," the narrator tells us, "There is a final resource to which I have resorted when necessary--the imagination." How does she use this resource in telling her story? Is it a resource to which the other historians in the book resort, as well?

     
  2. The theme of mentors and disciples is an important one in the book. Who are the story's mentors, and in what sense is each a mentor? Who are the book's disciples?

     
  3. Near the end of Chapter 4, Rossi says, "Human history's full of evil deeds, and maybe we ought to think of them with tears, not fascination." Does he ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (376 words).

Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Dirde

...Elizabeth Kostova has produced an honorable summer book, reasonably well written and enjoyable and, most important of all, very, very long: One can tote The Historian to the beach, to the mountains, to Europe or to grandmother's house and still be reading its 21st-century coda when Labor Day finally rolls around.

Library Journal - Patricia Altner

The writing is excellent, and the pace is brisk, although it sags a bit in the middle. There is plenty of suspense so that readers will want to find out what happens next. Ten years in the writing, this debut is recommended for readers who enjoy arcane literary puzzles la Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Ian Caldwell's The Rule of Four.

Booklist - Michael Gannon

Starred Review. Readers who think the legend of Dracula has become a trite staple of schlock fiction will find this atmospheric page-turner by first-time author Kostova a bloodthirsty delight. ...Both literary and scary, this one is guaranteed to keep one reading into the wee hours--preferably sitting in a brightly lit room and wearing a garlic necklace.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.

Reader Reviews

JG Ulmer

The Historian - Excellent reading
Of the countless books and novels I have read, both fiction and non-fiction, I felt this was exceptionally well written. It was both an adventure in history and well told tale. For someone who loves history, geography, fiction and non-fiction - it ...   Read More

Yogamom

The Historian
Loved it, loved it so much I read it every summer over a few days. Only other books I do that with are "Rebecca" and " Pride and Predjudice" good company. Loved the time period changes, voice changes and lovely description of a ...   Read More

Michelle

The Historian
The book was recommended to me by a friend and I absolutely loved it, I thought the length and detail were fantastic. Ms. Kostova really made the story believable and well written. There was fantasy within the story line that touched so closely to ...   Read More

Gillian

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
This excellent book has been spoiled for me by too many errors. For example, page 189 Dr. Turgut is described as having a silver mustache & a mane of silver hair yet on page 209 when the couple meet him the next morning he now has 'curly dark ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Elizabeth Kostova (née Johnson) was born in New London, Connecticut in 1964, and now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress.  The Historian took her ten years to write, and was inspired by the vampire stories told to her by her father, a professor of urban planning, during the year they spent in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia (where her father taught at the university) when she was seven, and as they traveled through Europe.

She says, "I wondered whether this...

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