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Book Review - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Hunting the Dragon

The Historian
by
Elizabeth Kostova

Published by Little, Brown, and Company

Review by W. R. Greer


Dracula has been the focus of countless films and books. He's almost always the Transylvanian count who became one of the undead, a vampire who hunts his victims at night, draining the blood from their body via tooth punctures in their carotid arteries. It's become a genre unto itself, and a numbing one at that, with its repetition of the same unstoppable horror and violence. Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian is a new approach to the Dracula story, telling the story from the perspective of historians in a race to find his grave in hopes of saving one of their friends.

The historical Dracula was Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler for his favorite way of murdering people, a ruler of Wallachia (not Transylvania) in the 15th century. Vlad's father was leader of the Order of the Dragon, Dracul in the local language, and his son, Dracula, was given to the Ottoman empire as a peace offering. It was while he was a prisoner of the Ottomans that Vlad learned many of his evil and torturous ways. When he fought his way to the throne of Wallachia years later, he became one of the Ottomans worst enemies. Their attempts to conquer Wallachia were constantly thwarted by Vlad, finding their armies impaled on stakes in defeat. Vlad's tyrannical rule also had thousands of his own subjects tortured and killed this way, often whole families at a time. Hated by his own people, facing constant threats to his reign from boyars in his own government, and under constant military action from the Ottomans, Vlad was killed in battle in 1477, decapitated, and his head was taken back to Istanbul as proof of the death of their nemesis.

This death of Vlad the Impaler somehow translated into him becoming a vampire, one of the undead who have lived for centuries, spreading his evil to new victims around the world who would also join the ranks of his undead minions to do his bidding.

That's the historical background for The Historian. Elizabeth Kostova's novel opens with an unnamed female voice informing the reader in the year 2008 that she's about to tell the story of what happened to her thirty years before. The story is mostly about her father, a historian turned diplomat, and his search for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. This narrator, raised alone by her father after her mother's death, finds a book in her father's study when she was 16. The book has no text, but at its center, is a woodcut image of a dragon carrying a banner with the single word Drakulya. In addition, she finds letters dated from 1930, the first of which begins:

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.
Her father, Paul, was a graduate student at an American university in the 1950s, and the letters belonged to his beloved adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi. Rossi also possessed an identical book with just the dragon at the center. Paul finds the book in his carrel in the university library, and when he tries to get rid of it, it keeps reappearing, as if by magic. When he shows his book to Rossi, Rossi shows Paul his copy of the book, and the journey he undertook because of it back in 1930. The first part of The Historian is Paul telling his daughter Rossi's account of his actions after finding the book. As an expert in medieval European history, Rossi goes in search of the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. Searching in a library in Istanbul, he finds a map that suggests that Vlad's grave is not where conventional historical wisdom says it is, but he can't tell from the map where it might actually be. An encounter with an evil and mysterious stranger makes him decide that it's a research topic that he should drop. After Rossi tells Paul of some of his findings, Rossi mysteriously and violently disappears. Paul is convinced that he's taken by Dracula.

Paul's diplomatic career takes him all over Europe, and our unnamed narrator accompanies him whenever she can. He tells her Rossi's story, and his search for Rossi. Researching Vlad the Impaler in the university library, he encounters a young woman, Helen, doing much the same research, and she has her own reasons for wanting to find Rossi. Armed with Rossi's letters to his unfortunate successor, they try to retrace his steps, beginning in Istanbul. They hope that if they find Dracula's grave, they'll find Rossi there and be able to save him if they can arrive in time. Before Paul can tell our narrator all of the story, he disappears also, and his daughter finds more letters in his study, detailing his and Helen's search back in the 1950s. Now his daughter is in a race to find Paul before it is too late.

The evil at the center of The Historian is Dracula and his undead minions, who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets, including the location of Vlad the Impaler's grave. The Historian, though, is not to be approached as either a horror novel or a thriller. It is not filled with dripping horror that will raise goosebumps, and it's not filled with non-stop action that keeps the pages turning with cliffhanger action. It reads more like a travelogue, a paean to history, and a love story, with the horror of unspeakable evil and the race to save loved ones the glue that binds it all together. Each chapter, and they do move back and forth between the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1970s, tells of each step in the search for Dracula, and the uncovering of each bit of information that leads them on to the next stop in their search. While it's not a thriller in the usual respect, these individual scenes serve the same purpose, driving the characters forward in their quest for knowledge and salvation.

Rossi's search and Paul and Helen's search decades later were the research of scholars. The mysteries they solved and the clues they unearthed were often found in ancient books, often kept in ancient libraries or remote monasteries. One of Elizabeth Kostova's strengths is her obvious love for books and scholarly research and how she can make this type of life enticing and exciting. Reading The Historian makes you want to find the nearest library and delve into their ancient books section. Paul and Helen find innocuous information in separate places that makes sense once they know the bigger picture. Dracula and other vampires are aware that they are on their path, and spread death and violence in an attempt to stop them. If Rossi is to be found and saved, they must press forward. Ms. Kostova also is smart enough to include more mundane evil that poses just as dangerous threats to their quest and lives, from Communist officials who have their own agenda, to references from Machiavelli to Hitler. In their frantic search to find Rossi, Paul and Helen find love with each other while dodging the horrors that are meant to stop them. It's a charming touch, even though it's a bit cliché, to have a love story at the center of a horror or thriller novel.

That's not to say that The Historian doesn't suffer from common problems with debut novels. Paul, in his letters that his daughter reads, tends to overdo superlatives. Experiences are often the oddest, most amazing, most delicious, most surprising of his life. All of the characters suffer from a certain lack of nuance. The good characters are all good to a fault, and many of the minor characters are easily interchangeable. There is a lack of surprise at any character's action or motivation. You know the good guys will help all they can and the bad guys will be as evil as they can. The ending is a bit weak, but not unsatisfying.

There is so much more that's done well in The Historian, though. Another of Ms. Kostova's strengths is her ability to create a sense of place and culture through her descriptions of the exotic locales and people throughout the novel. For example, here is the narrator's first experience of the Slovenian countryside:

This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans - who left their walls here in their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast - saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father's car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struch by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.
As one who enjoys both history and traveling, these aspects of The Historian drew me in and made their journey one I'd want to take myself. It moves from the larger European cities - London, Amsterdam, Istanbul - to deep into the Balkan countryside. This is a long book in a smaller-than-normal font, but it's never boring and never drags. It's being hailed as the summer blockbuster of 2005 and suffering comparisons to The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four. While it obviously has some elements in common with those books, it's completely original and worth the hype. Read The Historian as a love of history, travel, and humanity, with the mystery and evil of Dracula lurking in the background to jump out at you. It's an enjoyable journey for those who dare to take it.

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