Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianI have read The Historian twice. It has the perfect plot for someone who is obsessed with old books, archives and historical mysteries. Fortunately, second time around, I had forgotten the details, so the suspense was just as real. I did remember one crucial thing, however – this is not a book to read after dark.  

The story is told in the voice of a teenage girl who lives with her father in Amsterdam. She discovers an old book and a packet of letters in her father’s library, and her request for information leads to his account of certain strange, and rather frightening events that he witnessed during his student years. His story begins with the book, dating from the early sixteenth century, which appeared one day on his desk in the university library. It is entirely empty, apart from the centre pages, which depict the spread wings and curling tail of a dragon, and the unnerving name: Drakulya.

It is this discovery, followed soon afterwards by the sudden disappearance of his advisor, Professor Rossi, that leads the young man on an adventure like no other, travelling across Europe in the company of an intriguing young woman. Together, they begin to investigate the story of Vlad Ţepeş of Wallachia, the real historical figure that Bram Stoker used as inspiration for his famous novel, a feudal Lord obsessed with torture and the occult. Their research points towards one frightening conclusion: that Dracula is both real and very much alive.

The plot is complex, and multi-layered, full of suspense and an overriding sense of horror. To begin with, it is a retelling of something incredible and strange that happened many years ago, but we eventually discover that the mystery is yet to be solved, as the horrors of the past reach into the present. Despite the surreal, and rather clichéd subject matter, Kostova has managed to keep this novel somewhat realistic, set firmly in the world of academia and archival research, with characters that display a considerable amount of scepticism despite the evidence before them:

“While I was standing there, I realised that another librarian behind the big altar had moved closer and was watching me. He was a thin middle-aged man I’d often seen there, only slightly taller than his colleague and shabbily dressed in a tweed jacket and stained tie… I was unexpectedly struck by a change in his appearance, his face looked sallow and wasted, perhaps even seriously ill… he leaned over to examine some books that had obviously been returned to the desk and were waiting to be dealt with. And as he bent myopically toward them, his neck was exposed for a moment above the threadbare shirt collar, and I saw on it two scabbed grimy-looking wounds with a little dried blood making an ugly lacework on the skin just below them…”

The detail is tantalising, and the mystery is eventually solved. This is a gripping read with a satisfying ending, set against a magnificent backdrop of European history and folklore.

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One thought on “Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

  1. Now, this isn’t a book in any of the genres I read, but my old boss bought it for me because it was about Romania, and we were heavily involved with helping the Jews there at the time. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it – except for some of the gory parts (which were hard to get through).

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