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The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
I haven't read a Vampire story in a long time - I grew weary of Anne Rice halfway through the second one.

But I truly enjoyed reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. In fact, I was supposed to have this review done two months ago, but I just couldn't get myself to speed read this book. A really great story that weighs in at over 6oo pages, I ended up just savoring every bit of it.

The Historian is a terrific debut novel. The strong writing is replete with weighty descriptions of exotic eastern European cities, which were hidden behind the Iron Curtain for much of my life. Who knew that Budapest was actually two cities divided by a river - Buda and Pest? (If you knew this, just keep it to yourself, smart guy).

The nameless female narrator recollects her adventures as a budding young historian unraveling the mysterious history of Vlad the Impaler, widely credited as the true life inspiration for the Dracula legend. After the narrator shows an odd book she has found to her historian father, he reveals that he has some knowledge of it, and that it relates directly to Dracula.
His secret obsession with the bloodsucker began decades earlier when he and his academic adviser also had some very odd experiences, just before his adviser disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Her dear old Dad then promptly disappears as well, but not before putting pen to paper and recording his own unbelievable quest to uncover the truth about Dracula. So the narrator sets off with another historian buddy to find her father, while reading his story of journeying to find his adviser decades before.

Get it?

This is just the set up. There are a couple of really great stories here that compliment each other as we jump back and forth in time between them. Kostova's storytelling is superb, and she does an excellent job of peppering all of the various historical documents that we encounter with colloquialisms of the day, so that we really get the feeling that we are on an adventure in time, uncovering important artifacts along with the narrator and her father. We get all of the excitement of making historical discoveries, without the years and years of dull memorization that put the main characters in the position to make them! It's like getting to be in the Olympics without having to practice or give up your childhood.
The other cool thing about The Historian is that none of the characters believe in vampires at the beginning of their tales - they are historians, academics, rational people. But what slowly dawns on them, as they dig ever more deeply into the history of Vlad the Impaler, is that Bram Stoker may have just gotten the facts a little bit wrong. And that is when we all start to get a little bit scared.

What if Vlad the Impaler had found a way to cheat death? His Order of the Dragon held the Ottoman Turks at bay when no one else was able to. Vlad held power in Wallachia, which lies in modern day Romania, several times during the course of his life. The history Ms. Kostova presents about his life seems to be true, including the discrepancy about his final resting place. Why couldn't his descendents be secretly marked with a dragon tattoo, to preserve his lineage for some dark purpose?

Ironically enough, when I was nearly finished reading The Historian, I happened to go hiking with a scientist from Romania in a remote area of northern Georgia - the kind of place where if you get bitten by the wrong thing, you might not make it to the hospital in time. Naturally I took the opportunity to question her about Vlad the Impaler.
She told me that he was a national hero in her country, lionized for fighting off the Ottoman Turks. Apparently that part of the world still hates the Turks because of their behavior in the Middle Ages. In addition, without any prompting from me, she related versions of several of the folk stories Kostova's characters uncover about Vlad and his brutality in The Historian. She also confirmed that no one seems to know where he is really buried.

Just after she finished her last tale of Vlad the Impaler, I noticed an intricately carved ring on one of her long, pale fingers. I couldn't quite make out what it was, but I thought it might be...

"I like your ring," I said casually. "What is that, is it Celtic?"

"Oh, it's nothing," she replied, holding it up for my inspection. "It's just a design."

I looked at it more closely and a shiver ran down my spine. I looked from her face to the ring, and then slowly back again, her cold blue eyes staring right through me.

"It's a dragon," she said.
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