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The Historian

A novel by Elizabeth Kostova

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A labyrinthian vampire chase

  • Jul 25, 2005
  • by
Scholarly historians are the heroes and victims of Kostova's 600-plus page vampire novel. Each diabolically selected scholar, in the fearless ambition of youth, receives a strange, compelling book with a dragon woodcut in its center and nothing but blank pages to either side.

The dragon holds a banner with one word on it, "Drakulya," and the intrigued historian instantly becomes obsessed with tracing the book's origin and meaning, which clearly springs from the bloody, medieval reign of Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula. A monster who shed the blood of his own people in horrible ways, Vlad also ferociously resisted the Ottoman invasion of Eastern Europe, though he was finally defeated and beheaded by the Turkish sultan. After reading about Vlad you will be cheering the sultan, but not so fast - the story has barely begun.

Kostova structures the book as a story within a story within a story, all linking up and moving the narrative forward under a central, framing narrator, a 53 year-old historian looking back on the events of 1972 when she was 16. An American living in Amsterdam at that time, the daughter of an historian turned diplomat (her mother is long dead), she one day finds her father's dragon book, together with a bundle of letters from a Professor Rossi, dated 1930, each beginning with the salutation, "My dear and unfortunate successor."

Though she reads only the first paragraph, that's enough to spark an uneasy curiosity of her own: "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 be someday read."

She bides her time, but insists her father, Paul, take her on his next diplomatic trip where, in an ancient Slavic setting she reveals her find and gently demands (she is, up until this Dracula business, a very dutiful, respectful daughter) an explanation. In a succession of colorful, atmospheric trips throughout Italy, France and eastern Europe, Paul tells his daughter the story of 1953 when he found his dragon book and his beloved advisor, Professor Rossi, disappeared, sparking Paul's quest to find Dracula's grave and somehow save his mentor.

Within his tale is Rossi's parallel story, told in the letters, which takes place in his graduate days in 1930, when he, too, found a dragon book among his possessions and began digging into the legend of Dracula. When a close friend dies mysteriously, Rossi, driven by grief and hopes of revenge, travels to Istanbul and beyond, seeking Vlad's grave. Like Paul, Rossi abandons his search, jolted by terror into returning to normal life, and passes 20 years in tranquility, until his student, Paul, comes to him with a dragon book.

All of this is delightfully creepy and intriguing, but the structure - Paul telling his daughter these perfectly composed stories, complete with long conversations, and even longer letters delivered verbatim while sitting on stone benches or at café tables - bothered me enough so that it was something of a relief when Paul disappeared and the narrative could take a more normal shape.

That is, his daughter chases off after him, and in her possession is a large bundle of letters, written by Paul for just such an eventuality as his disappearance. As she (together with a young, graduate-student protector, foisted on her by her father before his disappearance) follows her father's footsteps from Paris to the Pyrenees, she reads his narrative, which concerns his search for Rossi, most of it in the company of Rossi's unacknowledged, illegitimate daughter, Helen, a Dracula historian.

Paul and Helen pursue Rossi's trail through old books and older letters, through venerable libraries, ruined monasteries, and ancient crypts. Their research takes them back in time to the end of the Byzantine Empire and its conquest by the Ottomans who destroyed the churches and monasteries and imposed Islam on the conquered. They travel from Istanbul to behind the Iron Curtain, to Hungary and Romania and Bulgaria, where political dangers are second only to the diabolical. Strange encounters bring them to other scholars with dragon books and new pieces of the puzzle, both historical and modern.

They are, naturally, shadowed by vampires, who seem determined to hinder them, and perhaps also make them join their company. But where do the dragon books come from? What mysterious entity compels these book holders to find one another and combine their knowledge to draw closer to Dracula's unquiet tomb?

Kostova sometimes takes the scholarly conceit too far, with long prefaces to historical documents that trace their provenance in detail down through the centuries, and some serious minutiae on monasteries, monks, and Ottomans. But this also lends the book an additional dusty air of authenticity and ancient, moldering atmosphere.

Fans of literary vampire stories steeped in history, with old stone crypts, lush, dark valleys, distrustful peasants, romance and danger will enjoy Kostova's debut. It's a page-turner in the sense that each new document, letter, place or encounter reveals a bit of the secret and opens new questions, leading the reader/traveler on ever further into the lair of the vampire.

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More The Historian reviews
review by . April 06, 2011
So, in order:      1.  Is it just me, or has there just been a glut of novels in the last decade or so based on the fiction of new-found materials about some older fictional topic:  new Shakespeare plays, new Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  All of these accounts purport to shed some new light on a historical (who was Shakespeare?) or fictional (did Holmes ever fall in love?) mystery.   Here Kostova reuses this now-overdone convention to explore whether Dracula …
review by . December 02, 2010
Ever since Bram Stoker published "Dracula" in 1897 the vampire genre has had a healthy and uninterrupted ascension amongst the works of literature. "The Historian" is one of the latest more successful additions to the Dracula lore and legend. As the title may suggest, the plotline of "The Historian" centers on several generations of related twentieth century historians who are becoming increasingly convinced that the myths and legends behind the historical figure of …
review by . June 24, 2010
Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" a book about the search for Dracula has got to be one of the most arduous books I have read in a very long time. In fact it's been almost 7 years since I read Stephen Kings "Dark Tower" series, and that's the last time I had a hard time finishing a book! I actually started in in October of last year and finally put it down after only 20 or so pages. I only picked it back up because my local book club picked it as the book of the …
review by . November 29, 2010
Ever since Bram Stoker published "Dracula" in 1897 the vampire genre has had a healthy and uninterrupted ascension amongst the works of literature. "The Historian" is one of the latest more successful additions to the Dracula lore and legend. As the title may suggest, the plotline of "The Historian" centers on several generations of related twentieth century historians who are becoming increasingly convinced that the myths and legends behind the historical figure of Count Dracula may in fact have …
Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
One of the better vampire attempts of recent years. It needs more attention.
review by . July 01, 2010
I guess it sorta depends on which one you read first
There are lots of good things to say about Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian"! It's moving, suspenseful, creepy, deeply atmospheric, haunting and informative at the same time about a particular area of the world and a point in time that few readers will be familiar with.      The basic plot is beautifully summarized in Amazon's editorial reviews and, frankly, I don't think I can improve on it ... so I'll reproduce it here for the reader's convenience: &nb …
Quick Tip by . June 30, 2010
an intresting twist on the origional vampire myth about count dracula. kind of long but very action packed with a writing style similar to dan brown of the di vinchi code.
Quick Tip by . June 28, 2010
Amazing vampire story.
Quick Tip by . June 26, 2010
This novel inspired my visit to Eastern Europe. I have wanted to visit Hungry since I was a small child, but never as much as I do now and I can't wait to visit all of Eastern Europe. I made a Romanian friend while reading this book in Knoxville, TN and we have built quite a relationship since we bonded over this book. He has shared so many of his experiences growing up there with me and then we compare what is in the book. Enjoy this sharing so much. Inspired by a really good book.
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
An enthralling tale but the plot is a little dragged out and the book can seem quite lengthy at times.
About the reviewer
Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #183
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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The Historian is the 2005 debut novel of American author Elizabeth Kostova. The plot blends the history and folklore of Vlad Ţepeş and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula. Kostova's father told her stories about Dracula when she was a child, and later in life she was inspired to turn the experience into a novel. She worked on the book for ten years and then sold it within a few months to Little, Brown, and Company, which bought it for a remarkable US$2 million.

The Historian has been described as a combination of genres, including Gothic novel, adventure novel, detective fiction, travelogue, postmodern historical novel, epistolary epic, and historical thriller. Kostova was intent on writing a serious work of literature and saw herself as an inheritor of the Victorian style. Although based in part on Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Historian is not a horror novel, but rather an eerie tale. It is concerned with history's role in society and representation in books, as well as the nature of good and evil. As Kostova explains, "Dracula is a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history." The evils brought about by religious conflict are a particular theme, and the novel explores the relationship between the Christian West and the Islamic East.

Little, Brown, and Company heavily promoted the book and it became the first debut novel to become number one on The New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale. As of 2005, it was the ...

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ISBN-10: 978-0316011778
Editor: 0316011770
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Historical Fiction, Horror, Vampires, Gothic Horror, Adventure, Thriller
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, Back Bay Books
Date Published: 2005
ISBN: 0-316-01177-0
Format: Novel
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