Desert Isle Keeper Review

The Historian

Elizabeth Kostova
2005, Historical Mystery
Little, Brown and Company, $25.95, 642 pages, Amazon ASIN 0316011770

Grade: A-
Sensuality: N/A

Can I just say "wow"?

Equal parts paranormal, historical fiction, and kick-butt thriller, The Historian is a rare thing – a "literary" novel that doesn’t read like one. What I mean by that – and I'm just being honest here – is that even though the author's prose is sophisticated, her story complex, and the demands she places on the reader not inconsiderable, this 642-page debut novel is as riveting and un-putdownable a tale as even the most demanding reader could possibly expect. And even though The Historian isn't perfect, if you're anything like me, this isn't a book you're "supposed" to love, this is a book you will love.

Largely an epistolary novel told from several points of view, the first – and, in many ways, the primary – narrator of the story is a woman in her fifties telling of the pivotal events of 36 years earlier that followed her discovery of a mysterious book in her father's library. The second voice is that of the young woman's father relating even earlier events from his days as a young historian and scholar, with the third belonging to his distinguished and much revered mentor and advisor.

The book the young woman discovers is obviously centuries old and features on two facing pages a "great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched. In the dragon's claws hung a banner on which ran a single word in Gothic lettering: "Drakulya." Inside the volume the young woman also finds a number of yellowed, aging letters. The first snippet from these letters perfectly illustrates both Ms. Kostova's style and the nature of the tale:

"December 12, 1930

Trinity College, Oxford

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. If you are not my successor in some other sense, you will soon be my heir – and I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experiences of evil. Why I myself inherited it, I don't know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually – perhaps in the course of writing to you or perhaps in the course of further events."

Yes – you guessed it – The Historian tells the story of a multi-generational search for Vlad Tepes, the real and horrible vampire otherwise known as Dracula.

The first 250 pages of this novel are riveting. Regretfully, however, the middle 200 or so are far, far less so due to the author's relentless insistence on sharing with the reader every detail gleaned from her extensive research into the 15th century monasteries of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and France; the history of the Turks in Eastern Europe and their conflicts with the native people; and life in the remote villages and cities of the region under Communism. (A word of warning: These pages are not skim-able since important information is revealed.) Things, however, pick back up again for the final 200 pages when the reader is rewarded for her patience with a phenomenal climax for the paranormal aspects of the novel, but a less satisfying one for the more human side. Puzzlingly, since this is an author who obviously likes to take her time, what should have been an overwhelmingly emotional moment for several of the characters feels instead both rushed and distressingly anti-climactic.

Still, there is much to love here – so much, in fact, that I don't think I've been as caught up in a paranormal novel since Anne Rice's memorable The Witching Hour more than a decade ago.

As someone who rarely reads the popular bestsellers, it's more than a bit heartening for a book such as this one to find the wide audience it has – this is about as far from Dean Koontz as you can get, fellow readers. Given that bestseller status, whether you chose to view The Historian as popular fiction or that of the more literary variety, the undeniable truth by any criteria is that this wonderful, complex, often scary saga is an impressive achievement for a first-time author. But, even more importantly, The Historian is massive and altogether fabulous book for those who love paranormals or thrillers or historical fiction – or, quite frankly, anyone who simply loves a great story well told - to get lost in. And isn't that a terrific feeling?

-- Sandy Coleman

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