Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Posted on Mon 15 August 2005 in Dispatches • 3 min read

Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian is a scholarly thriller set in Cold War Europe. It is the tale of several academics who become obsessed with the legend of Vlad the Impaler after having mysterious volumes delivered to them containing only a detailed illustration of a enormous dragon within. The story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl, who must leave on a quest to find her father Paul, after he vanishes in an attempt to uncover the truth regarding the legendary fiend himself.

Now, wait a minute. Before you stop reading, let me state that this is not just another Dracula novel. My biggest concern beginning this book that it would simply be another romp down the well worn path of vampire fiction. However, The Historian was a delightful surprise. Unlike so many novels featuring this particular bad guy in history, the focus of this novel is not supernatural action, but rather the slow building of tension as the protagonists are drawn into a web of international conspiracy even as they attempt to escape the dangers posed by competing scholars also desperate to uncover Dracula’s secrets.

The story is told from the point of view of Elena, but her father’s letters and journals are used in order to simultaneously tell the story of his first attempt to uncover the truth behind the history after his advisor vanished while researching the subject. It is a strange race across international borders, from Istanbul to Budapest and deep into the dark history of Eastern Europe. Kostova skillfully builds the tension as her characters slowly uncover the clues through ancient texts found in university archives and monastery libraries, leading them down the path to an ancient evil.

The cool thing about this book is that Kostova’s prose does not read like vampire fiction or even horror, it reads like history. The use of academic letters and journals as a storytelling device serves to reinforce this approach to the narrative, even as it gives a sly nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where so much of his book was told via character correspondence. Yet, even with this removed approach the dragon at the center of this book wraps his presence throughout every moment. The influence of Dracula is felt on every page as Kostova’s characters struggle to make sense of the monster’s legend and the events that have befell their friends and colleagues.

Carefully paced, this book draws you in and keeps you reading. Unfortunately, the story of Elena is not nearly as complete as that of her father, and it leaves me feeling that somehow she should have been utilized more, rather than reading her father’s letters. However, the book’s ultimate take on Dracula is new and exciting, and even more chilling for horrific images addressed in the novel are from the pages of history rather than the imagination. The ending of the book is a little weak; I found myself wishing she had delved even more into the story of Dracula’s place in the modern world, or that the action was somehow a little more climactic.

Despite my few complaints, The Historian is a fun and worthwhile read, and I strongly encourage you to pick it up. Kostova’s novel is a welcome change, and I am delighted to see it on bestseller lists, an accomplishment that too often eludes good books. I eagerly look forward to her future work, and I anticipate several re-readings of this book in my near future.

Read the book? Agree/Disagree? Think I am full of it? Leave a comment!