The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova received a lot of hype in the summer of 2005. It was proclaimed as ‘this year’s Da Vinci Code’ or the ‘Dracula Code’ and on almost every book reviewer’s list of recommendations. The comparison to The Da Vinci Code made me nervous about a book that otherwise sounded like a great read. So, instead of rushing out and buying it, I kept my eye out and found a used copy at the local independent bookstore. It was near the top of the Stack for a while, and I finally got around to reading it.
In short, comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are unfortunate for The Historian. Yes, there are a few superficial similarities, but below the surface they quickly and thankfully disappear. This was the long way of saying that the The Historian is a beautifully written book that thoroughly entertained and even educated me, all the more impressive since it is Kostova’s first novel.
The story is told by a narrator who is a middle-aged historian about a dramatic series of events that took place in her late teens. Our historian is exploring her father’s library and discovers a book containing some old letters that are addressed to: “My dear and unfortunate successor”. The reader is immediately sucked into to the methodical and suspenseful explanation of the meaning of these words and events of her father’s life in graduate school when he became this “unfortunate successor”.
We embark into an adventure through cold-war Europe, dusty libraries, spectacular churches and monasteries, and the mystery of the undead, particularly the most famous undead of them all – Dracula. While Dracula and vampire lore play a key part in this book, the story is more of tale of coming of age, love, the clashing of cultures, the similarity of mankind, and price of hatred.
One a 10-scale, where 10 is unsurpassed and 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, The Historian easily scores an 8, and I’m tempted to score it a 9. Parts of the novel seemed rushed after the build-up and some conveniences in the plot are unsatisfactory in their explanations, but these failings are minor at best and easily overcome through the overall quality of the storytelling. While, for a book about vampires, The Historian is low on action, it is high on suspense and I highly recommend it for any audience above the pre-teen level, though maturity and life experience will go a long way toward fully appreciating it.