The Historian

Written by Elizabeth Kostova

First published in 2005 by Little, Brown and Company

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This book really doesn’t emphasise much on characters or character development, instead choosing to focus on the history and influence of Vlad Tepes. This risks making the characters impersonal blank slates and I’m sorry to say that the author falls right into this trap.

As expected, this happens in both narrator characters: Paul and his (unnamed?) daughter. Both are on a quest to find someone but, even though we have an insight into their home life and research, their narrative voices are almost identical. It became a bit confusing after a while. It was impossible to tell which was which, especially since names were so scarce. They’re both resourceful, intelligent and determined to slay Dracula once and for all but I can’t really pick out anything unique about them. They’re just reporters of events.

The more interesting ones are the ones who don’t tell the story. The most interesting of all is Helen Rossi. Really, this book should have been told from her point of view. She has a fascinating backstory, all kinds of impressive abilities and a more interesting motive beyond simply finding a missing person. She’s bitter over her father’s apparent abandonment  but, when it came down to it, she didn’t let her grudge blind her. Her determination is second to none and, at times, she shows a lot more grit than Paul. Suffice it to say that she’s my favourite character.

The last protagonist I want to talk about before getting onto the Big Bad is Professor Turget Bora. Right from the start, he was a very fun character. From his occasional malapropisms (in otherwise excellent English) to his scattered Shakespeare quotes (always a good route into my good books), he was a joy to read. Not to mention, he proves a very useful ally to Helen and Paul in their original hunt for Dracula. The reason for this turns out to be that he is from the Crescent Guard, an ancient but diminishing force that really needed more exposure and exploration than it got. Nevertheless, he is an invaluable ally and a pleasure to read.

Now for the Big Bad Fang himself: Dracula. He’s a rarely seen figure, only visible through the acts of brutality he commits and his persistent subordinates. However, when we do see him, he’s quite an understated villain and his motive for his actions are quite unique to say the least. Plus, his attacks are just too intermittent and his subordinates much too visible for him to be much of a threat. The author may have got his history right but I don’t think they made him a scary villain.

Like I said, character is not the focus of this story but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few good ones along the way.

4 out of 10 drops

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I’m going to come out and say it – I have neither the time or the will to fact-check every little historical fact in this book. If you’ve picked up an incorrect fact while reading it that I haven’t noticed, let me know. I’ll just stick to the most commonly occurring ones.

First off, Vlad Dracula’s biography. This book nails it. We see everything from Vlad’s capture and imprisonment in the Ottoman Empire, his bloody rise to power in Wallachia, his imprisonment in Hungary which resulted in a marriage and a conversion to Catholicism and even on the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Plus, his symbol was the dragon, which is what we see over and over again. Seeing as our characters must follow the important events of his life to find him, it would be unreasonable to expect anything less than perfection.

One of those major events is Dracula’s burial. The commonly known theory is that Vlad Tepes was buried in a monastery on an island in Snagov. That’s certainly what the monastery owners like everyone to think. It brings in a lot of tourists. The book is right to state that Vlad was a patron of the monastery and visited it several times but there’s no evidence that Vlad himself was buried there. Still, that fits nicely with the book for reasons I won’t spoil but you can probably guess on your own.

We see a lot of various vampire myths from different cultures throughout the book such as the Greek vrykolakas (who become monsters if they led a sinful life or they were not buried properly) and several French vampires that seem to be the invention of the author (although, the Vampires of Normandy is the name of a heavy metal parody band so I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or the author’s little joke). We also encounter the link between the literal blood drinking done by vampires and the figurative blood-drinking of the Catholic communion and the misunderstanding that can occur when presented with them. A rather interesting idea.

Lastly, the link between the St George myth is appropriate as, in Romania, it is believed that vampires roam on the eve og St George’s Day and that fact was incorporated in ‘Dracula’ itself (and it’s important to point out that, according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, it falls in on 5th May, not 23th April).

I’m barely scraping the surface here as I could probably do a whole essay on how accurate everything is in The Historian but I’m just going to give it a perfect score and feel free to correct me if I overlooked something.

10 out of 10 drops.

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The Historian is certainly the most wide-ranging vampire book I’ve reviewed. Throughout the book, the characters don’t just travel through Transylvania but Bulgaria, Hungary and France with plenty of time set aside for soaking up the different vampire mythologies. One of the most intriguing and unique ones I’ve seen is the connection between Dracula and the St George myth. It’s well known that Vlad Tepes was from the Order of the Dragon and since St George slew a dragon, it makes a lot of sense to incorporate it into the Dracula mythos.

It’s nothing new to connect Dracula with Vlad Tepes. Bram Stoker did it first and then many others followed. In fact, the author follows Bram Stoker’s guide to vampires to the letter, right down to putting garlic cloves in a potential vampire’s mouth to prevent conversion. The author expands on it a little by stating a victim needs to be bitten three times in order to turn. I think Lucy Westenra was bitten more times than that but this limit (which was also used in Night World) makes more sense.

I don’t think any book but this one has delved further into Vlad Tepes life or expanded on his death more than The Historian. If you would like a thorough exploration of the Dracula mythos, this is certainly the book to do it. I’ve covered this in the Research section but it’s quite obvious that the author has gone to great lengths to find out about Vlad Tepes’ life and the historical context of it. The book adds its own story about his burial but it all fits nicely into the facts.

The story is, for all intents and purposes, about finding missing people, whether it’s a father or a favourite teacher. It’s a common plotline and this book involves two running at once in different timelines. This can get very confusing and I’m not sure this is a good idea. It may have been better to just write two smaller books.

Considering that the main characters are all professors and university students, there are some exasperating moments of stupidity that really irritate me (who drinks something called ‘amnesia’ and doesn’t expect to forget things afterwards?). Plus, while the romances are slowly built, they still start out of nowhere and could really be done without.

The Historian doesn’t do much new but, more often than not, it gives a welcome new spin to the old cliches.

7 out of 10 drops

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No matter how briefly a character stays in a place, the author takes the time to paint a lush detailed picture of the city or the country, including their current political climate and their cultural beliefs (not just the ones relating to vampires either). It rather makes me want to go and visit these countries as it all sounds to beautiful and fascinating. I think Bulgaria is the best described with the combination of the warm openess of traditional living with the tense suspicion of communism.

The author also uses a country’s economic climate to her advantage during the book. As if Dracula’s presence wasn’t threatening enough, Helen and Paul have to contend with the communist regime of 1970s Bulgaria watching their every move and restricting their access to important information, made even worse by spiteful false reports made by a jealous ex-lover. At times, I think an added threat was needed. Dracula is very rarely ‘on stage’ and his stooges do all the stalking for him. He can be frightening once we know he’s there but, when he’s not, it’s easy to forget about him and the story slows down a lot as a result.

As I said earlier, the alternative history of Vlad Tepes’ burial and subsequent resurrection fits very nicely with the story of his life. That’s a fine story in itself with dead ends eliminated and the facts being slowly revealed as the journey goes on.

The world building is excellent with positive pictures of all the countries travelled through and the story of Vlad Tepes being nicely expanded upon. I could have done with Dracula being more threatening, though. It would have stopped the story dragging. I wish the author had said more about the Crescent Guard too.

8 out of 10 drops

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This is not only the widest ranging modern vampire novel I’ve read but also the longest. That means the potential for slow pacing and dragging chapters is high and I’m sorry to say that the book slows to a snail’s pace several times. It can even feel like, well, a history textbook and not in a good way. Irrelevant facts are given too much exposure and the book takes far too much time in some places so it feels very long-winded and tedious.

It’s easy to draw parallels with Dracula in this respect. In fact, the book encourages it. The book is split into three parts with multiple chapters in each and each part has a seemingly arbitrary Dracula quote at the beginning. Several mentions of the book are made throughout the text as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I wish the book had been written from Helen’s point of view. She has the more interesting motive and backstory for going on the hunt for Dracula while Paul and his daughter are much more like blank slates for the reader to impose themselves on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it makes reading it a little dry.

The book is not one detective story but two, each happening in a different timeline, and the narrative alternates between both stories like Blood and Ice. While The Historian does give enough time to develop some of the characters, it’s lacking in others and so falls into some of the same traps. At first, it’s at random with no helpful indicators of year or place and it can become very confusing as to who’s telling the story until you get about 100 pages in. Then, the author helpfully alternates points of view between chapters and then devotes the third part to the present day when the past one is done with. I’m not sure if this confusion was deliberate but it certainly made the book more difficult to read.

As I said, it is very long and I would be tempted to chop it down quite a bit. Probably even to split the book into two stories to give Paul and his daughter some type to develop properly.

6 out of 10 drops

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Overall – 35 drops – A Negative/AB Positive


2 thoughts on “The Historian

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