Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Overall Rating: 3.5/5.00
Do I recommend: Yes

Well, not many books have left me as flabbergasted as this one has. It’s not that the book is really confusing or the plot doesn’t make sense throughout, etc, it’s just that I’m having a hard time forming a solid opinion about this book. For me, that is uncommon. Usually I either love a book or hate it. As I made my way through college, I began to have some more middle-ground feelings for certain works…so I’m still getting used to not being at one extreme or another.

Anyway, the reason I am so torn about this book is because I guess I had different expectations it, way before I ever began reading it. I was expecting a Gothic terror-like novel, basically in the style of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And I guess I do see the threads of that type of writing throughout the novel, but it wasn’t AS good in that way as I had expected.

I was drawn in by the title, as well as the subject matter. I knew it was about vampires, and the book was recommended to me by two friends who had read it. They loved it, and one mentioned it was quite scary. Now, maybe I’ve just been dulled from reading too many other horror-type books or seeing too many slasher films, but I did not find The Historian to be scary…at all, really. There were a few creepy moments in which I saw the Gothic-terror-novel-threads I mentioned above. Additionally, the novel hearkens back to Stoker’s classic because of how it’s organized, in a series of letters, documents, and other narration. I felt like there were some pieces missing, as I felt while reading Stoker’s novel. I assume that was the purpose in writing it with that organization.

I did not go into this expecting it to scare me silly or gross me out; that’s the difference between a terror novel and a horror novel. Horror novels get you with tons of blood and guts, while terror novels work on a more subtle, psychological level to get under your skin and creep you out. Like I said, I saw a few moments of this, but I think it could have been amped up a bit.

Something I love about this book is that it takes place in many different settings and makes use of different narrators. I appreciate that, and I love the atmospheric descriptions of all of the locations. I have never wanted to visit Romania, Istanbul, and old crumbling monasteries more than I do now. There is no doubt Kostova is gifted with words. This was her first novel, and it was over 600 pages and took ten years to write! I am impressed because of that, and I don’t want to be too harsh on the novel because I understand it’s got to be very difficult to write a book like that for your first novel. Especially one that attempts to re-imagine a beloved classic.

That doesn’t mean I won’t point out what I didn’t like about it, though. I’ve read a few reviews since I finished reading the book myself, and I recall one reviewer who noted there was virtually no difference between the voices of the narrators. I hadn’t really noticed this while I was reading the book; I was too preoccupied I guess. I also tend to read for pleasure, not analysis. I clearly like to analyze, but sometimes I just want to enjoy a book and not have to think. The narration switches between a daughter, postcards from her mother, the father’s letters and stories, and an Englishman’s letters. And now that I think about it, they all did sound the same. The vocabulary, syntax, and tone was all the same throughout. While this is great for consistency over such as huge book, I can see how it doesn’t really work for this style of storytelling. Each narrator, if they had been real people, would have undoubtedly sounded different in writing, just as they would have in speech. While I do consider myself a writer, I must admit I struggle with creating different voices for my characters, too. So I completely understand that style of writing!

Besides the voices of the narrations being identical, the biggest problem I had with this novel was in one of the characters. (Major spoilers, by the way, in case you didn’t read the note above!). Dracula was a HUGE disappointment. Sure, he turned people into vampires and used them as his minions. Even if we barely saw it happen in the story, we knew it was going on. The text also implies several times that he went out to drink from humans. It doesn’t say whether he killed them, turned them, or just ate and left them alone. But I expected much more creepiness and brutality from him! I mean, the entire reason he captured Professor Rossi was so that he could CATALOG his LIBRARY. I understand that Kostova is trying to show a different side of Dracula–the real Dracula, no the one from Stoker’s novel. Most people have forgotten that Dracula was based on a real life person, Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler). He was a warrior, and a brutal one at that. I understand he could have very well had scholarly interests as well, and maybe he really would have wanted to collect a great library of works for all of eternity (heck, I’d like to do that, and stay in school forever, if I was a vampire). BUT, I’m not a bloodthirsty maniac in real life like Tepes was! I can’t imagine why someone would want to take the real person of Tepes and construe him into nothing but a bibliophile! It just doesn’t seem to fit his image (fictional or real) very well. I was so disappointed with the character of Dracula.

I may have only been disappointed because I went into this novel knowing it’s about vampires and also knowing that I have had a ton of exposure to vampire literature/media and LOVE the theme. That doesn’t mean I love all vampire novels (cough, looking at you, Twilight…cough), but I really expected to love this novel. I do like it, a lot, just not for the reasons I thought I would. So, while I believe the book is very well-written and so wonderfully illustrates the settings, and I’m thrilled someone wanted to write a novel at least somewhat similar to Stoker’s, I can’t get over how wimpy Dracula was! He IMPALED people for FUN in real life. And the big climax is that he wants scholars to expand his library for him? What??? And it took so long to get to that climax/conclusion….

Additionally, I don’t really see what the significance of those five or six or however many dragon books…you know, the ones Dracula and his minions kept giving to people. It’s like…here…here’s proof I live, but I don’t want you to study me, because then you’ll get punished. What’s the point in the books then? I feel like some of the logic in the plot was a bit flimsy as well…as in I wasn’t always following why the characters chose to go to certain places to continue their search. Finally, I read Dracula was supposed to be a metaphor for all of the evil in the world throughout history, or something like that…but isn’t that what vampires are always supposed to represent? The evil in our own societies? I’m not sure if she thought she was getting at something new or not, but whatever it was, I think it was lost on me. Oh, and I wasn’t thrilled/satisfied with Rossi’s end either. Totally wasn’t expecting that. However, some other parts of the novel were so predictable!

Anyway, all of that rambling aside, I do still recommend it even though my opinion is torn about it. I wanted so much to like it for certain reasons, but that just didn’t happen. But, I won’t let me preconceived ideas decide my entire opinion of the book. I did still enjoy it, and I read it very quickly. (Just…please…if you write another one…make it more of a terror novel!)