It has been quite a while since I’ve read an honest to goodness vampire novel that won’t make me feel short changed, so when my good friend Lei showed me The Historian at Fully Booked, saying this is the only vampire book she enjoyed reading so far, I had to take her word for it (after all, we more or less have the same criteria on whether a book is good or not). And not such a bad decision to make – the minute I started reading, I couldn’t put it down anymore. In fact, I finished all 900+ pages in one day.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, is a reinvention of the story of Vlad Tepes, or in pop culture, the historical figure upon which Bram Stoker based his Dracula. But whereas Dracula focuses on how the main characters attempt to drive him back from London to Transylvania, and avenge his victims in their group, Kostova focuses more on the historical facts, mixes the legend of how Vlad became a vampire, and the decades-old quest of a man and his long lost wife (with help from a myriad of friends) to defeat him.
In a gist, the novel is told in the first person by the unnamed female narrator and at times, told through a series of letters from the main characters and written chronicles taken from libraries in the story. This is somewhat similar to Dracula which uses diary entries of the main characters as its method of delivering the story. The narrator discovers an old book with nothing save a woodprint of a dragon in its middle pages, and questions her father Paul, a gifted scholar and founder of a foundation. From here, the story reveals that the book is but one of four that Paul encounters throughout his journeys, and each owner had received the book anonymously, and had attempted to track down the meaning of the book and the dragon in its pages.
As Paul digs deeper into his research, his mentor Prof. Rossi reveals he had received the same book shares his own research on Vlad Tepes and then mysteriously disappears, leading the former to go on a quest to find and rescue his friend. As he goes on this quest, he meets many friends and enemies, partners with Rossi’s daughter Helen, whom he discovers is a descendant of Dracula, saves his professor from a doomed existence, and fails to kill Dracula. He ends up marrying Helen and gets separated after a short period, after Helen decides to leave and hunt Dracula herself. The main characters converge at the end of the story, and Helen ultimately succeeds in killing Dracula and ridding herself of her fears, reuniting with her family and friends.
The novel lays its foundation on the fact that Vlad Tepes’ tomb has never been identified, even though he was a very notorious leader in the 15th century, raising suspicion that he might in fact, be still alive. This is perhaps the main selling point and strength of this novel –> it is based on actual historical figures and events, and interweaves Catholic and pagan beliefs (which has always been the scariest combination for me).
Another strength is Kostova’s detailed narrative; the reader will not have problems imagining any given scene or place. Each character plays a pivotal role; if not, then that character is still not forgettable – even Irina, the pretty niece of a professor whom Paul befriends in his search for Dracula’s lair.
However, while well-written, The Historian only serves to provide a more detailed historical background to Stoker’s own novel, compiling facts that are otherwise available to a resourceful reader, even on the internet (there are inconsistencies but can be overlooked in respect to poetic license). It doesn’t offer any new story or facet to the cliched topic, except to rewrite it under different circumstances. Also, given that Kostova has created remarkable characters, these persons share the same nuances and manners that it is quite hard to judge who is speaking the lines unless you see the actual name.
The Historian is like a typical Victorian-era novel – flowery prose, long sentences that make up an entire paragraph devoted entirely to lush descriptions of scenes or places in the story. The only thing omitted is the use of old English terms; making the novel contemporary Victorian-esque (is there such a term?). This may be a turn on for fans of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, but will definitely turn off the teen crowd who worship Stephanie Meyer.
I recommend this book simply for the way it has been researched and written into one cohesive narrative. It’s far from being perfect, but it is a good read.