Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
I don't really know what made me buy this novel. In all honesty, I didn't do my usual reading of the jacket or skimming of the pages. I simply saw it and bought it in a moment of book buying mania. This was one of those odd cases I told you guys about where the book picks me not the other way around. Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised when I actually sat down to read. As I've said before, I love historical fiction and fantasy and this novel manages to interweave them seamlessly.
Background on the book:Here's what Amazon.com has to say:
If your pulse flutters at the thought of castle ruins and descents into crypts by moonlight, you will savor every creepy page of Elizabeth Kostova's long but beautifully structured thriller The Historian. The story opens in Amsterdam in 1972, when a teenage girl discovers a medieval book and a cache of yellowed letters in her diplomat father's library. The pages of the book are empty except for a woodcut of a dragon. The letters are addressed to: "My dear and unfortunate successor." When the girl confronts her father, he reluctantly confesses an unsettling story: his involvement, twenty years earlier, in a search for his graduate school mentor, who disappeared from his office only moments after confiding to Paul his certainty that Dracula--Vlad the Impaler, an inventively cruel ruler of Wallachia in the mid-15th century--was still alive.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is elegantly written. The book has three criss-crossing story lines: Professor Rossi's research in 1930 into the life of Vlad the Impaler after receiving a book with only a solitary drawing: a woodcut of a dragon, the 1950s when Professor Rossi imparts his knowledge of his research to his student, Paul, after finding out that he too has received a curious little book with a dragon thus leading Paul into his own quest for knowledge and finally, the main narrative in 1972 with Paul's daughter.
This book is honestly one of the best books I've read this year. Kostova has done an excellent job of creating suspenseful situations without them being over done. Sometimes historical novels walk a fine line of credibility, especially when they focus primarily on historical fact. Credibility wasn't a case with The Historian. For many years now, I have been extremely interested in Vlad the Impaler and not because he's the original "Dracula," but because I find twisted characters in history fascinating. Needless to say, I've done a lot of research on him and his rule. So, it is very interesting to read a story that brings his past and the narrative present together so flawlessly. This is especially seen in the character of Helen and her dealings with Vlad Tepes.
Moreover, I instantly fell in love with the narrator, Paul's unnamed daughter. I think I connected with her on a deeper level since much of my childhood was shockingly similar to hers. No, I'm not talking about the whole Dracula-is-coming-for-me thing, but in terms of her relationship with her father and her travels, etc. I felt like she and I were living twin lives in a weird way. Anyhow, it is because of this that I can say that most of Kostova's research and her descriptions of certain events and places are extremely accurate. Surprisingly so, actually. That isn't to say she didn't... stretch the truth in many places and admittedly there are a few inaccuracies in the book (which I'll get to), but really, I don't mind letting those slide at all since they actually helped propel the plot forward. Kostova also creates memorable, believable (and most importantly relatable) characters who's situations have you constantly grasping the edge of your seat.
The Historian is not a book you can read in one afternoon. A lot of people like to compare Kostova to Dan Brown, which I find unfair. Where as you could sit down and read The DaVinci Code or Digital Fortress in one day, with Kostova's books you find yourself mulling over all the information over the course of a few days constantly going back to make sure you pieced the pieces together properly. Her books are also highly addicting. Trust me when I say The Historian is definitely a late night page turner (but not too late... you might just spook yourself out with all the Dracula talk!).
A few things I have to note:
- Historical documents during the Ottoman empire would have been written in Turkish with Arabic script, not in Arabic as was written in the book.
- In 1950, it would have been impossible to call directly from Istanbul to Hungary.
- Also in 1950, Soviet housing would not have existed outside of Budapest.
- Shakespeare never had a lost work entitled The King of Tashkani.
A few of things I loved:
"At farms along the road we stopped to buy picnics better than any restaurant could have made for us: boxes of new strawberries that gave off a red glow in the sun and seemed to need no washing; cylinders of goat cheese weighty as barbells and encrusted with a rough gray mold, as if they'd been rolled across a cellar floor. My father drank dark red wine, unlabeled and costing only centimes, which he recorked after each meal, carrying with it a small glass wrapped carefully in a napkin. For dessert we ravaged whole loaves of newly baked bread from the last town, inserting squares of dark chocolate into them. My stomach ached with pleasure and my father said ruefully that he'd have to diet again when we returned to our ordinary lives."
This seems like an episode straight out of my own life. Kostova has somehow managed to dip into my subconscious to describe those perfect French summer days I spent with my family eons ago.
" We have all, of course, heard the story of the invention of the croissant, the tribute of a Parisian pastry chef to Vienna's victory over the Ottomans. The croissant, of course, a symbol the West devours with coffee to this very day."
This is one of several stories of the origin of the croissant. I think it was clever to use it in this story.
"I wondered to my discomfort if I might be able to get up and open the door to the compartment without his noticing me. Suddenly I saw that he had drawn the curtains to the aisle. No one walking through the train could see us. Or had Barley drawn them before leaving, to let me sleep? I snuck a glace at my watch.... The man behind the newspaper was so still that I began to tremble in spite of myself. After a while I realized what was frightening me. I had been awake for many long minutes by now, but during all the time I had been watching and listening, he had not turned a single page of his newspaper...I sat very, very still on my seat in the train, staring at the newspaper of the man who sat opposite me....After a moment my worst fear was realized: he spoke without lowering his newspaper...My skin tingled as I listened, because I couldn't believe what I was hearing. His voice was quiet, cultivated. It asked a single question: "Where is your father, my dear?"
Possibly my favorite part in the story. So very chilling and so very well written!
All in all: This novel really speaks for itself. It is the perfect blend of suspense, history and fantasy. I suggest The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova to anyone who isn't too afraid to read a history that could come back to bite you.
Also, here's an interesting interview with the author. Interview with Elizabeth Kostova.
P.S. My next review will be on Masquerade by Melissa de la Cruz in anticipation for Revelations which comes out in exactly 14 days.