Let me hazard a guess: this book is a cross between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Wrong? If I am, I have no right to defend myself since I haven’t read either book. I only have that notion because of The Historian’s subject matter and the pace of the novel.
It’s my first time to read something of this kind. I like my novels slow, so when I was presented with too much action and suspense, I found myself bored to death. Or undeath. What a paradox. I didn’t hate this, though. It’s just that I am not used to it, and probably I should have tried slimmer suspense or “horror” books.
This is the product of Kostova’s long years of research, and her own research must have crept into the novel’s plot because we have a professors and kids researching the whereabouts of Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula. Each character, in his own time, goes around the libraries of Eastern Europe for any literature that remotely refers to Vlad Tepes. Not only that, they also go to far-flung villages to listen to legends and songs, such as this one:
The dragon came down our valley.
He burned the crops and took the maidens.
He frightened the Turkish infidel and protected our villages.
His breath dried up the rivers and we walked across them.
Now we must defend ourselves.
The dragon was our protector,
But now we defend ourselves against him.
The novel opens in Netherlands upon the unnamed narrator’s discovery of a box of letters addressed to her father, Paul. The letters, written during Paul’s younger years, are from his thesis adviser, Professor Rossi. The latter talks about his horrifying experiences when he tried to look for the tomb of Vlad Tepes. Professor Rossi suspends his search until Paul tells him of a mysterious dragon book that is left to him. This troubles Professor Rossi because he has this same book, a book that has a strong connection with Dracula. He resumes his research and he disappears. No one has a clue except for Paul: his disappearance must be related to Vlad Tepes.
This sets the journey of Paul to Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Each country is vividly described. I actually enjoyed reading about the travels because I favor these less popular European nations for my imaginary European tour. With each stop, Paul meets characters who are also interested in Dracula. There’s Professor Turgut whom he met in Turkey, Professor James whom he met in Hungary, and Professor Stoichev whom he met in Bulgaria. These three will contribute greatly to the whole search of Dracula’s tomb.
Paul is not alone right from the start. While doing his preliminary research, he meets a woman at the library who’s reading a copy of Dracula. This woman is Helen. She has quite a dubious character, but she proves to be an indomitable researcher. As the search of the two for Professor Rossi progresses, a lot will be shed about her motives and her character.
Those are the plot basics. The characters read books and letters, and they are presented on the novel as they are. We slow down in our travels and take time to read the references for any clues. In addition, three journeys are relayed to us in this novel. First is Professor Rossi’s journey to Romania during the pre WWII years. Second is Paul-Helen’s, more than two decades later after Professor Rossi’s. And third is the Paul’s daughter’s journey to France, which leads to the novel’s climax.
It is written in the first person, but I would have preferred it if it were in the third. The narrator tells us the story of his father, delivered to her in the first person, so there are two layers of first person storytelling. If first person storytelling is unreliable, what do you make out of this? And this is a book about historians rummaging through history, for crying out loud.
I think people who love history might love this novel, particularly those who also have a certain interest in the vampire lore. On the other hand, I think history buffs are better off reading history books. Historical fiction is still written for entertainment and not as a definitive source for various subject matters because after all, it is still a novel, only that it is propped against historical characters and events.
Another guess that I would hazard: this is better than the Twilight series. Sure, there was a little annoyance on my part when I finally met Vlad Tepes, but at least Kostova did not make a sparkly creature for a vampire.