“A singular image drifted back to me: Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where I’d strolled that recent sunny morning, and the gates where the Ottoman executioners had displayed the heads of the sultan’s enemies. Dracula’s head would have warranted one of the highest spikes, I thought – the Impaler finally impaled. How many people would have gone to see it, this proof of the sultan’s triumph? Helen had told me once that even the inhabitants of Istanbul had feared Dracula and worried that he might fight his way into their very city. No Turkish encampment would have to tremble again at his approach; the sultan had finally gotten control of that troublesome region and could set an Ottoman vassal on the Wallachian throne, as he’d wanted to years before. All that was left of the Impaler was a gruesome trophy, with its shrivelled eyes and tangled, blood-caked hair and moustache.”
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was published in 2005 and I might have missed it if not for the advice of a friend who suggested it for the historian in me. And that is exactly who this novel is perfect for, anyone with that historian thread in their interests.
This story is told from several different characters’ point of view but all focus on the same fixation; searching for the resting place of Vlad the Impaler. Paul has always impressed the importance and love of history on his teenage daughter, bringing her when he visits other countries to give his academic lectures. He has secrets however and he slowly begins to reveal them to his daughter as she matures. It has been a lifelong obsession that started with the disappearance of his thesis advisor during University, Paul Rossi, which catapults him into a whirlwind of historical research that will lead him across the world. Paul is accompanied by a brilliant but enigmatic woman named Helen and trailed by a strange librarian who seems to defy death. The search for his advisor, who in many ways is valued more as a father figure, will take them to Istanbul, Hungaria and eventually Romania. With each location they gather another piece of evidence about the infamous Vlad Tepes, the barbaric warlord of the fifteenth century who earned the name Dracula, and begin to unravel the legend of Vlad the Impaler’s life and mysticism. All of this is learned through letters left for Paul’s daughter as she too begins a search for her father, who has suddenly disappeared as well.
It only struck me as I wrote this review and searched through the book for the daughter’s name that it is never actually revealed. One might assume from this that she is the “Historian” that the novel is named for but, in my opinion, the title of historian can apply to numerous characters including Paul, Helen, Professor Rossi, the numerous academics they receive assistance from throughout the story and ultimately the very man they are searching for. History is the name of the game in this book. The constant use of research, the countless libraries they visit, the ancient manuscripts and songs that yield evidence, the academic atmosphere of the entire story is the literary dream for anyone who loves learning about history and all the facets it is recorded in. When doing a bit of background reading about the book I learned that Elizabeth Kostova did a tremendous amount of research to make this retelling of Dracula’s story as accurate as possible. As with any historical fiction some things have been changed to enhance the story but it is quite evident how much effort Kostova has made to ensure her novel was historically captivating and realistic.
With that being said, I can certainly see how someone who does not have a great interest in history might find this book a bit tedious. It is almost 700 pages and for some that is just too long. I will admit that it took me a while to get into the book but when I did I was eager to read it to completion. Koskova is a beautiful writer and the descriptions of the locations are stunning. However, I think it is safe to say that this is certainly a book for someone with the patience for intense but gradual story-weaving and a love for everything history.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a historical fiction of significant standing, both in storytelling and length. Readers of a certain nature will love the historical nature of this novel and appreciate the quality of its writing. The subject of Dracula has always been fascinating and Kostova writes a new version of the age-old story grounded in historical evidence that makes it a treat to read for all the history lovers out there!
Devon – a1000booklife
Other books written by Elizabeth Kostova: The Swan Thieves (2013)