The Historian

Read2020

AuthorElizabeth Kostova

Published2005

GenreHistorical Fiction / General Fiction

Length:  720 (paperback)  |  26h 6m (audiobook)

Selected ByElle Tea

Elle Tea’s ScoreScoring Great Book

To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history.

Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters.  The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.

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Elle Tea’s Review

I was a preteen and teenager in the 90s, when vampires really took over all forms of media, so there will always be a special place in my heart reserved for those immortal blood-sucking fiends.  And one who steps forward with an offer that is literally, “Come with me and I will give you knowledge for ten thousand lifetimes,” is pretty much going to find me an easy convert to the ranks of the accursed undead.

That being said… I was really torn about Kostova’s The Historian.  I found a majority of the novel interesting, well-written, and oddly engaging.  Yes, it has its dry moments, moments that seem a bit less like a novel and more like a lecture on southeastern European history – but if you picked up a 700+ page book in which the word “historian” makes up pretty much the entire title and are genuinely pissed that it is heavy on history, well… then… I really don’t know what to tell you.

The atmosphere and journalistic style invoked by The Historian is reminiscent of Stoker’s classic original work combined with Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), specifically the early train scene of the latter in which Ted “Theodore” Logan (er, I mean John Harker, as played by Keanu Reeves, which turns out to really just be Ted Logan in a suit) unwittingly rides towards doom while journaling, reading letters, and day-dreaming about Mina Murray (as played by Winona Ryder).  The majority of The Historian is spent trailing after one character or another as they follow the trail of the historic Vlad III (better known as Vlad Dracula or Vlad Țepeș), an endeavor which sends them dashing across southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean via train, buggy, and automobile, jotting down commentary via letters or journal entries about the different – and yet, due to their shared history, similar – cultures, cuisines, folklore, and superstitions which each character encounters.

But while history is the professional calling and primary interest of every character we track, it is not their primary motivation.  It is the means to an end, a way for learned men and women to reliably hunt down an ancient and seemingly immortal evil.  And as our protagonists amass more facts from more locales, they find they are not nearly as alone as they originally believed: from monks to librarians, urbane government officials to the simple inhabitants of remote mountain villages, it seems just about everyone they come across wants to either destroy or serve the source of the blood-thirsty plague.

I found the true history of this region quite interestingly woven into a purely fictional tale.  If you’re a fan of history and are familiar with the Ottoman Empire’s conquests and influence across Europe and the Mediterranean, you, too, may find yourself impressed by Kostova’s skill at working a “real” vampire menace into the mix.  The vampire element itself is also fairly interesting; while The Historian’s vampires and their minions often seem like shadows of their counterparts from classics of the genre such as Dracula, Nosferatu, and Vampyr, they are also just different enough to hold your interest and allow you to ponder their individual motivations for a majority of the novel.

And that brings me to my only issue with The Historian – which is, despite my rating, actually quite a big problem.  I really enjoyed the first 70% or so of this novel – I devoured it and returned to it at every available opportunity.  But at the 70% mark, I unknowingly received the first hint of what was to come: a minor mystery that had troubled many of the characters for a good portion of the story by that point was given an improbable, realistically unlikely, and thoroughly disappointing explanation.  I even sighed, put down my Kindle, and posted an update to my Goodreads account to say that this had best not take a turn to become some sort of Scooby Doo caper.

It didn’t.  Not completely.  It recovered for another 15% or so after that initial bump in the road; it shook itself off and seemed to remember that it was  vampire novel for grown-up intellectuals that had taken a methodical, steady approach, a creeping crescendo that slowly escalated for 650+ pages…

And then…

Then it suddenly flipped from a gradually mounting threat to a campy, supernatural soap opera episode of Dark Shadows.  That improbable explanation hinted at around the 70% mark became the theme for most of the ending, as one character after another demonstrated how deus ex machina works in literature for the reader: individuals, some of whom you’ve not even heard from since earlier chapters, beat impossible odds to arrive just in time, and, once what’s left of the action fizzles and dies, we’re treated to a character literally just sitting down for a few pages to trot out absurd answers to all of the otherwise unresolved questions, effectively driving a stake through the heart of whatever life remained in this novel.

As disappointing as most of that ending was (you do need to read the epilogue, which, despite being yet another “WTF” moment, does manage to salvage some of this novel’s dignity), I still gave The Historian four warm cups of tea.  I enjoyed the journey and the company (most of the time), and as far as vampire novels go, it is truly one of the better and – for about 650 of its 720 pages, anyway – most believable I’ve read.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.

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