Saturday, July 12, 2014

The "Da Vinci Code" for Dracula!

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova



What if the infamous Dracula really existed and wasn't just the fruit of the overactive imagination of one Bram Stoker? What if he's been recruiting people all these years since his 'death' to help him in his vile work? What if some people figured out that he could actually be tracked down? And what if that search overtook their lives to the point of frenzy and placing themselves in mortal danger? This is the premise of The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova's first novel - and touted as "The Da Vinci Code for Dracula".

In essence, this book takes the reality of Vlad Tepes, (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Count Drakul, etc.) who was a real person in the 15th century in Transylvania (or Wallechia), and then mixes in the idea that perhaps Bram Stoker wasn't wrong when he made this real person into a vampire. This story then takes the premise one step further in that it also assumes that Dracula has been 'undead' over the centuries and that he continues to prey on the blood of his victims while being hunted by historians throughout the ages.

In order to tell this story, Kostova focuses on a particular group of people who apparently have been chosen by Dracula himself to research him and eventually find him. The choosing is done by a mysterious delivery of a book to each of these historians. These ancient looking books are totally empty except for an elaborate wood cut of a long-tailed dragon, and it is from this initial 'clue' that the historians are essentially challenged to get to the bottom of the myth or truth behind the infamous Dracula.

The people in this book are Prof. Bartholomew Rossi, his doctoral student Paul, Prof. Rossi's daughter Helen, Paul & Helen's daughter (who narrates the book) and an Oxford student named Stephen Barley who befriends her. This is also done in two layers, since Paul & Helen are involved in one time period of research - in looking for the missing Prof. Rossi (and Dracula), and the daughter and Barley are in another time period - in looking for the missing Paul who has gone to try to find the missing Helen (as well as Dracula). Confusing, isn't it? Well, since this is done through the retelling of incidents and reading of documents, it becomes quite less confusing as you read it. And although it isn't totally chronologically done - since we jump back and forth between the time periods - the parallel accounts certainly mesh quite nicely, filling out the story into a whole by the end of the book.

Now, I'm not a big fan of thriller or action novels. I'm also not into the horror or mystery genres. However, this isn't one of those novels which will actually scare you out of your seat or even keep you on the edge of it - at least not at the beginning. And despite some of the gory details of the real Vlad's crimes, I didn't find this to be all that gruesome, either. I'd say that this book is creepier than anything else. I'd also say that the action isn't all that fast paced, either. But when you get about two thirds of the way through the book, you'll find yourself really wanting to know what happens next and get to find out how it all ends.

Yes, I hear you say, that two thirds is a good deal to go through to get totally hooked by this type of a book, especially with such a lengthy novel as this one. But don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that most of this is a boring book. On the contrary, what I found was a missive with a writing style that was smooth and suggestive. Kostova seems to have an excellent feel for the sub-text of words and used this to the fullest extent. The language she uses is deceptively simple, and as she uses everyday terms and almost pedestrian choices of words, she's all the while painting pictures that become vivid in your mind. She also makes this seem effortless, which is an extremely difficult thing to do. Don't be fooled by my description here - her language is far from poetic or flowery. It is simply, well, evocative.

Moreover, she pulls the reader gently in by endeavoring to make you believe that what you're reading is a true account of a true story. Unfortunately, human nature and suspicion will keep you from actually accepting that there really are vampires, or ever were vampires. And Kostova also knows this and so she does all she can to keep you just on the edge of the reality-fantasy border. For instance, when you read her opening "A Note to the Reader", it sounds like a typical reality check with the usual why she wrote the book along with her thanks to those who helped her. Totally normal and real - that is, until you read the signature, which is "Oxford, England, January 15, 2008". Yes, 2008! With this simple gesture, she pulls you off your guard and you then know you're going to have to guess throughout this book at what is real and what is false.

And yes, she does keep you guessing. For instance, from that opening note we must assume that Paul & Helen's daughter's name is Elizabeth - the same as that of the author - since she identifies herself as the narrator. However, her name is never mentioned, nor is Paul's last name ever mentioned - which seemed curious to me. This doesn't mean that the characters are flat, despite there being some small gaps in some of the descriptions of them. What I'm saying is, that while we may not be able to picture all of the physical attributes of all the main characters through descriptions of their features, we do get the feeling that these people are very real and three dimensional. This is done more through the way they speak (including accents or anomalies in their English), how they act, their writing styles and glimpses at their reactions to what's going on. Through this, we find ourselves feeling empathy for the characters - which is what a good author needs to do.

I have to admit that most of the reason why I read this book is because of the locations included in it. This book brings you to so many places that I've been to, that I just had to see how well Kostova did in describing them. Mind you, many of the descriptions are of the Cold War era, and admittedly, I've only been to these places post-Cold War. Still, I got a feeling that for the most part, Kostova did an excellent job of research into the feel of such places as Istanbul, Bucharest, Budapest and even Oxford. Of course, any book called "The Historian" should be carefully researched, since that's precisely what historians do, isn't it!

So what have we got here? The story of this book is on a strangely fascinating subject - Dracula. The characters are well rounded and you'll find yourself caring about them. The research is well done, as far as I can see. The settings are interesting. The language is compelling and easy to get into. And our attention is kept by wondering what is going to happen, so we're not bored. Sounds like a winner, no? Well... The question then is, where is the emphasis here - on the story or on the characters? I've long believed that a good novel is one that is character driven, and for the most part, I believe that this is a character driven story - I repeat: for the most part. Even so, the plot isn't left to be second fiddle here, either, and I found myself feeling that there were places where the background and history overshadowed the action of the characters. Because of this, I was left with a distinct feeling that the enormity of the research - captivating as it may be - made this to be a bit too long winded and more drawn out then it could have been. I also have to say that the epilogue was more than a little strange, and probably wasn't needed at all. I'm not at all sure why it's there, in fact.

So, while I enjoyed this book, especially for the subject matter, writing style and language, I'm not totally convinced that it couldn't have used a touch more editing. This is the reason I'm giving it three and a half stars out of five but still recommending it, if not highly. If you're into horror/thriller/adventure/historical books, you might find this interesting to read - but don't expect to be shocked or scared by it, you'll just find it creepy. Not really my style - but, who knows, perhaps it may be yours.



"The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and the {now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.