Sep 9, 2008

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

"This corner of history was as real as the tiled floor under our feet or the wooden tabletop under our fingers. The people to whom it had happened had actually lived and breathed and felt and thought and then died, as we did – as we would."
The Historian tells three stories, three stories that are all pieces of a larger puzzle. The first is told by an unnamed narrator, who looks back on her days as a young girl in Amsterdam in the 1970s. It all begins when she finds a strange old book in her father’s library. It’s a blank book, apart from a dragon engraved in the centre. This discovery propels her father to slowly begin to tell her his own tale.

The girl’s father, a historian named Paul, tells her how when he was a graduate student in America in the 1950s, the book one day appeared at his study carrel in the library, as if by magic. When he told his adviser, Bartholomew Rossi, about it, Paul was told a chilling and unbelievable fact: Dracula still walks among us today. A vampire, yes, but not the count of Bram Stoker’s invention. This is Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, the cruel fifeteenth century Wallachian ruler.

The third story takes us back another twenty years, and it’s the story of how Professor Rossi came to learn the truth about Dracula. These three stories are slowly unfolded through long letters, documents and journals, creating an almost unbearable amount of suspense.

In some ways, The Historian is a reinvention of Dracula, but it’s also very much its own story. Still, it was interesting to see echoes of Bram Stoker in this novel, particularly in the scene when we get to see Vlad Ţepeş for the first time.

I think my favourite thing about The Historian was its atmosphere. While I didn’t find it actually scary (but then again, I’m notoriously difficult to scare), I found it ominous, deeply unsettling and very gripping and mysterious. As the story advances, more and more questions are raised, and I was eager to learn the answers to them all. Then there are the old libraries, the half-ruined monasteries and castles, the archives, the Renfield-like librarians, the secret societies that go back five hundred years. And of course, the vampires. What’s there not to love?

I also absolutely loved Elizabeth Kostova’s descriptions of different cities and countries, of their sights and smells and sounds, of their particular feel. She added quite a few places to my “must visit” list, and the only reason why she didn’t add even more was the fact that some of them where already there to begin with. But she renewed my desire to visit them. She takes us to Istambul, Budapest, Sofia, Oxford and the south of France, among other places. I loved how she wove descriptions of local cuisine into the novel. Even though I’m not very adventurous when it comes to food, I wanted to try all the dishes the characters were trying.

Mixing legend, history and folklore, Elizaebth Kostova creates an unforgettable modern gothic tale. But The Historian is more than that. It’s also a reflection on the importance of history, on the weight of the past, on what can be learned by looking back. It's a book about the importance of studying the past so that we can see ahead more clearly.

I’ve seen The Historian being referred to as “The Dracula Code”, and while I suppose I can see where the comparisons with The Da Vinci Code might have come from, I didn’t think that The Historian had the shortcomings that I found Dan Brown’s novel to have: it isn’t obvious, it doesn’t feel contrived, it’s much better written and it has a lot more depth.

If there’s anything I might complain about, it's the fact that the ending was almost too neat – almost. And I say almost because the epilogue restored some of the prevailing sense of mystery and menace that I wanted a novel of this scope to end with. And for that I was very glad.

Other Blog Reviews:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Tip of the Iceberg
My Year of Reading Seriously
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Framed and Booked
Becky's Book Reviews
Read Warbler
The Written Word
Pardon My French
So Many Books, So Little Time
What Kate's Reading
Here, There and Everywhere
Out of the Blue
Page 247

(Please let me know if I missed yours)


  1. Great review! I just checked the online catalogue of my local library and... they have it! Wow! I'll be sure to pick this up in the next few days.

  2. Oh Nymeth, another wonderful review! (Gosh, will you just one write a crappy one, so I don't feel like I'm always repeating myself?)

    I can't wait to show this review to Annie. She's had this one on her pile for awhile now, but she keeps moving something ahead of it. I think something about it is intimidating her. (Believe me, I know how that feels!) But I think after she reads your review, she'll be ready to jump right into it! Though maybe she should tackle Dracula first, huh?

  3. What a wonderful review Nymeth! I have this one sitting on top of my shelf and have been wanting to pick it up for so long. Your review has made me want to pick it up today. I have so many on the go right now though-I'm going to have to make this one a priority though. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Man...I have to read this book!! I bought it a long time ago...and I've never read it! I don't know why I've waited so long. Great Review!

  5. I really, really enjoyed this book too... there just one part (somewhere around where she was talking about the history of the monks) that got a little dry, and I agree, the ending was a little too neat, too literal. But the mysteriousness was restored. I really, really loved 90% of this book and thought it was so well written, with wonderful atmosphere, especially the libraries! It's one of those that I wish I could read for the first time, again.

  6. I thought I wouldn't like this but a friend kept saying I had to read it, when I did I loved it.

  7. Alessandra: I'm glad you were able to find it! I hope you enjoy it.

    Debi: I wonder if the length helps? Because that sure did intimidate me :P But this is one of those chunksters that actually feel much shorter. It's such an exciting read. And I don't think reading Dracula first is necessary. There aren't actually many references to Bram Stoker, it's mostly all the historical Vlad Dracula. There are some scenes in the book that parallel scenes in Dracula, and realizing that adds to the novel's richness, but the story is perfectly enjoyable even if you don't.

    And lol, Debi :P I predict that an extra crappy one will come along soon...I'm almost done with Jane Eyre and I never know what to say about classics :P

    Dar, thank you! I can't wait to see what you think of it.

    Stephanie: This is right up your alley! So yes, read it soon!

    Daphne. I think I know which part you mean. But I'm impressed that she managed to sustain my attention through such a long book. And yes, the libraries were just wonderful :)

    Katrina. I'm glad to hear you ended up loving it!

  8. I loved this book, although I was left a bit frightened at times (I'm easy to scare though.) Wonderful review!

  9. I read this a while ago when it first came out and remember really enjoying it. I'm going to have to reread it.

  10. A friend of mine just borrowed my copy and mentioned the same thing about the ending, but I can't remember it!! I would love to re-read this book someday. I loved it for all of the reasons you did, especially the rich history explained in the book. I found myself wanting to know more and more and doing research on the Internet while reading it to satisfy my curiosity! Glad you enjoyed it, Nymeth!

  11. Great review! I bought this book some time ago but just haven't got around to reading it. My coworker raved to me about this book all the time, so I know I've missed something. But after reading your review has made me move this book high up on my to-be-read list. ;)

  12. Great review, Nymeth! Now I definitely want to read this book! So I don't have to read Dracula first?


  13. Hi Nymeth! Great review! I reviewed this back at the beginning of the year (, and while I liked a lot of it, the book ended poorly overall for me. I thought it was too long, and I don't mind lengthy novels but I felt that the very last section (100+ pages) were just unnecessary for forwarding the plot - ie, did we really have to go to Bulgaria in the end? I sort of felt that the novel was eventually taken over by the author's unspoken need to write a travel log, and that dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.

    However...I did enjoy it most of the way through. I do hope she finds herself a good editor before her next publication, but I'll read it anyway.

    Does anyone know if she has another coming out sometime?

  14. I really enjoyed The Historian as well, particularly the focus on books and travel. I hope Kostova does have another book coming out soon!

  15. Reading your review made me even more excited to read this for the RIP challenge. Unfortunately, unlike you, I get scared VERY easily, so I have a feeling that I will need to read this with all the lights on!

  16. Great review, Nymeth! I have this in my TBR pile and almost selected it for the RIP III challenge but didn't...

  17. gosh.. first let me say I am glad to hear you say that you don't know what to say about "classics"! Although you are never without words! Heh.. I just read Dracula and it did nothing for me.. didn't hate it..but didn't really "enjoy" it either..

    I just began this same book, The Historian.. not sure how I will like this one either! But it's reviews like yours that had me send for the book so I am hoping this one is better than Dracula!

  18. hmm you made it sound a lot more interesting than I thought it would be! It's been on my pile for ages, should I move it up a bit?

  19. Traci: It's fun to be scared by books sometimes! I wish it'd happen to me more often.

    Chris, I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around.

    Trish: I'd tell you, but I worry that someone would glance over it accidentally even if I write a spoilers warning. But not remembering the ending will make re-reading it even more fun :P I loved all the details too...she must have spent a long time doing research for this book.

    Melody, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

    Kate: Thanks for the link! I really can see your point. Also, the fact that they ended up at the exact right place in Bulgaria by accident was too much of a coincidence, but I was too engrossed in the story to care! She did make it a bit of a travel log, but I enjoyed the tour. I don't know if she has another book coming out anytime soon, but let us hope she does!

    Sarah: Me too :)

    Laura: But being scared can be fun :P I look forward to your thoughts on this one.

    Alice: You can always add it :P I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Deslily: I'm among those who love Dracula, but I can totally see why the old-fashioned writing wouldn't work for some people. This one isn't like that, though! I really hope you end up enjoying it.

    Valentina, I think you should. For me, it wasn't one of those life-changing reading experiences, but it definitely was interesting and a joy to read.

  20. This is a book that I haven't gotten round to reading or even buying, as I haven't heard from anyone who has read it, but it always catches my eye whenever I go into a shop or the library! I'm on a book buying ban at the moment and have more than enough to read, but think I'll probably put it on my list! Great review.

  21. Thanks for linking to my review. For sure this is one book I will read again in the future!

  22. Mariel, I hope you have the chance to read it eventually. Anyone who likes a good gothic tale is likely to enjoy this one.

    Stephanie: You're welcome! And same here.

  23. And Annie, somehow I totally missed your comment, eek! Sorry about that. I don't think you need to read Dracula first, no. I hope you enjoy this one!

  24. Great review! I loved Kostova's rather old fashioned style in telling the story. I'm with you; I too liked the way she made this story her own while still making a connection to the Dracula story(ies). Loved, loved, loved it. I added a link to your review with my post on this book.

  25. Superb review and thank you for the link. Like you, this book made me want to go on a tour of eastern Europe. Happily I read it at exactly the time Michael Palin was doing his for BBC1 so I was able to see and soak in the atmosphere of some of the places I was reading about. Fabulous book that is definitely on my reread list.

  26. I nearly read this for the RIP II challenge last year, but decided it was about time I read Bram Stoker's Dracula first! I do have a copy and am definitely more excited about getting to it now. I am glad you didn't agree with those likening it to The Dracula Code and that the epilogue brought back the mystery. Thanks for a great review.

  27. Grrr... I was thinking I wouldn't bother getting to it this year, mostly because of the size, but now your review makes me want to pull it out and give it a go! I'm with Debi wishing you'd write a bad review from time to time. ;)

  28. I've always been torn about this book, and not just because it is a bit of a chunkster. I am such a fan of Dracula that I was always a bit unsure whether I would enjoy any novel that works around that story. I have heard so many positive things though that I really do need to give it a shot.

  29. Terri B, I loved it too :) And thanks for linking to my post!

    Cath: That Michael Palin series must have been so enjoyable. And talk about good timing!

    Rhinoa, I think you'll enjoy it. Vampires and libraries, what's there not to love? :P

    Tanabata: It really feels shorter than it is, though. I hope you manage to fit it in for RIP. And lol :P You and Debi are too nice.

    Carl, I understand how you feel, but the story actually has less to do with Dracula than I expected. And like I was telling Rhinoa, vampires and libraries! Perfect combination :P

  30. This is one of those books I've been meaning to read since it came out and just haven't gotten around to yet. I really liked what you said about how she describes the cities so well and even renewed your dreams of seeing some of them. I love it when a writer takes you there you know.

  31. I read this when it was first published and absolutely loved it for many of the reasons you state here. You did a great job with your review. It was spot on. I have to admit that though I loved the book, I had a very hard time describing it because it is so multi-layered and complex. I think this is one of those books that you could reread often and find new things at every reading.

  32. Iliana, I love it too. I hope you enjoy this book.

    Lisa, thank you, I'm happy to hear you think so :) It is very multi-layered, and there were lots of things I wanted to say about it (I didn't even mention Helen!) but I also didn't want to go on forever. I can definitely see myself re-reading this one in a couple of years.

  33. Far and away my favorite vampire book. I loved the travelogue as well. And I agree with you about the ending.

  34. Another book to add to my list!! Thanks for the recommendation!


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