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by Joe Wiebe
40-year-old American writer Elizabeth Kostova received a US$2 million advance for her debut novel, The Historian, which is being touted as the book that will finally unseat Dan Brown’s runaway hit, The Da Vinci Code, from the top of the bestseller list. In a direct comparison with The Da Vinci Code, The Historian wins by a mile, no question. Kostova’s novel is a far better book, but it is not a great book either.
In The Historian, three generations of historians follow the trail of Dracula—the real Dracula, that is, also known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of Wallachia (the southern half of present-day Romania), not Transylvania (its neighbour to the north), in the mid-15th Century. His other nickname was Vlad Dracula, which literally means “son of the dragon,” because his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, a group of knights who defended the Holy Roman Empire from the Ottoman Turks.
Vlad Dracula earned a reputation as one of history’s most nefarious characters because of his brutality against both his enemies and his own people. He is credited with killing between 30,000 and 100,000 people by impalement, a slow and extremely painful style of execution. He used public impalement to demoralize his enemies; there is nothing quite like the sight of thousands of impaled corpses rotting on stakes for months on end to make a statement.
Kostova’s historians attempt to unravel the secrets shrouding the end of Vlad Dracula’s life. Along the way, they encounter evidence that makes them believe that the legend of Dracula as a vampire is no legend at all, and their lives are put in jeopardy as a result.
The story is told in three layers, set in the early 1970s, the mid-‘50s, and the early ‘30s. In the ‘70s, a sixteen-year-old girl discovers an old book with an ominous picture of a dragon in it hidden in her father’s library. They live in Amsterdam, where her father, Paul, runs the Center for Peace and Democracy, which regularly sends him on diplomatic missions to countries on either side of the Iron Curtain. When she asks about the book, he tells her a story from his past which becomes the second narrative, the one set in the 1950s. In that story, Paul, a young graduate student in the U.S., discovers the book with the dragon among his own study materials and shows it to his advisor, Professor Rossi, who promptly goes missing under suspicious circumstances. Paul teams up with Rossi’s daughter Helen to locate the missing professor, and their quest eventually takes them to Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The story from the 1930s is Professor Rossi’s own, from when he trekked into Romania in search of clues regarding the location of Dracula’s actual grave.
Unfortunately, this intricate plot is awkwardly handled—most of the action takes place in the 1950s, but that story is told by Paul to his daughter, either in dialogue or in letters he writes to her. Interspersed into that narrative are historical documents that provide the characters with clues, which Kostova chooses to re-create in their tedious entirety, when often a single passage or paragraph would suffice to move the plot forward. Similarly, Professor Rossi’s story is told through letters he left for Paul. It is difficult to suspend your disbelief during page after page of what is supposedly a letter, but which reads like typical narrative prose. Kostova could have easily told this story in much less muddled manner.
The other main weakness here is the use of coincidence. It seems like everywhere Paul and Helen go, they conveniently encounter a local Dracula historian who imparts a useful fact to help them on their quest.
The strength of this book, however, lies in its apparent verisimilitude. Kostova shows off the mountain of research she must have examined over the ten years she took to write it. A quick google of Vlad Dracula shows that she did her homework—apart from the fantastic notion that he might be an actual vampire, everything the book’s historians uncover about Vlad Tepes seems to be accurate.
Another admirable aspect of this book is that it doubles as an enthralling travelogue for many well-known cities such as Paris, Istanbul, Budapest, Ljubljana, and Sofia, as well as lesser known spots in the south of France and Eastern Europe. Kostova does a wonderful job of re-creating these locations during the various eras depicted in her narrative, particularly what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Interestingly, despite being a vampire story, The Historian is rarely very frightening. Actual vampires hardly even make an appearance. It may not be very scary, but it is interesting and quite compelling. I doubt, however, if the publishers of The Da Vinci Code have anything to worry about.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.