Review of ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Poenari Castle, Romania
Poenari Castle, Romania

This was always going to be a hard sell for me.  Not only do I not like vampire fiction or film series, all of which tend to take themselves far too seriously (with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek British series ‘Being Human’), but I also am tired of being associated with vampires simply because I originally come from the Carpathian mountains.  To be precise, my father comes from the place where the so-called Dracula’s castle stands in ruins, Cetatea Poenari.

I’ve become somewhat tired of explaining that the vampire myth has always been far stronger in Bulgaria and Serbia, even in Greece, rather than in Romania.  That Vlad Ţepeş the Impaler was indeed a historical figure but has nothing to do with the pale Count imagined by Bram Stoker, and indeed, very little to do with Transylvania.  That the bad press Vlad received during his life and especially after his death was deliberately promoted by political rivals. Yes, he was a bit of a tyrant, creative in his cruelty and ruthless in meting out punishment – your everyday despot of the Middle Ages, then!

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (...
Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (1456-1462) (died 1477) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I tried to set all of that aside and read Elizabeth Kostova’s book about the search for Vlad the Impaler’s real grave with an open mind.  It is a novel where the real hero is historical research itself.  It owes much to the original ‘Dracula’  novel by Bram Stoker, and it is all about a story within a story within a story, with letters and stories by different characters in different periods (some historical, some more recent) creating a sense of time-travel.

The unnamed main narrator was a sixteen year old girl when she discovered an ancient volume and a secret stash of letters addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Gradually, despite her father’s reluctance and fear, she uncovers the innermost secrets and horrors of her family’s past, including how her mother and father first met.  Narrators past and present travel all over Europe, finding emblematic documents in obscure libraries and taking in many eerie sights on and off the beaten tourist track.  Along the way, they encounter strange characters, dangerous librarians and the living dead.  They also find corpses, missing friends and each other in the process.  All in all, it makes a change from the vampire type novels aimed at the Young Adult market, but some may find the insistence on documentary detail and the lengthy descriptions slow down the action.

I quite enjoyed the first few chapters, the gradual quickening of horror, the Victorian style and atmosphere (although it is set in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s). But it just felt too long and repetitive after a while and yes, there were inaccuracies. The characters all seem to have the same voice, regardless of their period, culture or sex.  If you want examples of thrilling research and discovery combined with love story or complicated action, A.S. Byatt’s ‘Posession’ or Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ are much better.  I have to admit that from about page 300 onwards (only half-way through), I skimmed through the chapters, simply because I did not want to admit defeat and abandon the novel.

book cover 3 the historianI read this book as part of my Global Reading Challenge, aided and abetted by Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise.  It is my contribution to the wildcard category – the Seventh Continent – an alternative setting you might not normally consider for crime fiction.