The Historian has sat on my shelf unread for over seven years. Yeah, that’s pretty shameful! I picked up my battered copy for a whole 20p at a hospital book sale, unable to resist the fancy swirling writing and menacing blood droplets on its cover. Having been struck down with a seriously evil case of tonsillitis this week, and having already binge watched all of the Outlander Season 2 TV series, I decided it was time to pick up this neglected tome of a book and show it some love.
The best way I can sum up this novel is that it was a good, entertaining book…until suddenly it wasn’t.
To you my perceptive reader, I bequeath my history…
Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor.’ Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.
The Historian is a deeply descriptive, epistolary novel, told through a series of letters and documents. It flits back and forth between the present, in which an 18 year old girl in Amsterdam has found a mysterious book in her father’s possession and demands answers, and the past which the girl’s father slowly discloses, where he was a young historian living a normal academic life until his professor and mentor, Rossi, goes missing, which leads him to start an epic quest – the search for Dracula. Kostova’s writing is dense, long-winded and certainly self-indulgent at times which means if you’re a reader who likes straight and to the point, this definitely won’t be the book for you! However, I have a tendency to enjoy this style and loved the authors sweeping descriptions of history, mysterious lands, legends and old libraries for the majority of the novel, until the story started to drag that is – then it became tedious. While I also enjoyed the epistolary style, it was somewhat problematic as Kostova’s characters describe people, places and events with an unrealistic amount of accuracy which stretches believability and sacrifices the integrity of the technique.
The Historian has been written in a very similar style to the original classic Dracula, and I saw this reflected in many ways including the writing style and the fact that Dracula is present for very little of the story, and instead remains a lurking presence throughout the novel. However, where the novel differs is the historical element, which gives great detail about the real life figure said to inspire the myth of Dracula, Vlad Țepes from the 1400s, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler as he was known to cruelly torture and execute people on spikes (kinda like stakes, huh?). Although I knew some of the history about the ‘real’ Dracula, I found each new discovery by the characters absolutely fascinating because I have always been interested in vampire legends and myths and how they develop over time or becomes popular in certain periods because of current events. I found myself eagerly devouring every page.
The first half of this novel was very well done, and I found myself racing through it quickly, the enigma of our narrator’s father, the missing professor and the mysterious book that turns up when historians start researching Dracula propels the story forward, filling it with mystery and intrigue. I also loved that the story unfolded while father and daughter were trekking all over the world on business, from Amsterdam, Italy, France, Slovenia, Romania etc., it made the story feel like a real adventure, a quest for truth that ignited an almost childish excitement in me. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the way through my enthusiasm started to wane. There was simply too much unneeded description, too little progress in the story being made, too much going over the same clues again and again that I found myself becoming frustrated and increasingly bored. This book probably could have been 500 pages instead of 700. Additionally, I found the ending anticlimactic – after the characters had such a long search for Dracula, facing him seemed to be over in minutes, and… I found the revelation at the end completely took away from the spookiness of Dracula and was laughable and ridiculous. It kind of ruined the story for me, and at this point, the Historian went from a four star read to a three star read.
The Historian also suffers from another problem, its characters all blur into one another and all the letters written by many different people read the same. Our 18 year old naïve narrator sounds exactly the same as her world-weary scholarly father, and he sounds just like his supposedly fiery wife, Helen, and his mentor Rossi. It got to the point where I consistently wasn’t sure who was speaking and had to work it out from what was occurring in the story which was a serious issue and a severe flaw with the writing which I felt really impacted my enjoyment of the story, and prevented me from becoming emotionally invested in the characters.
Overall, I found The Historian to be an exciting novel that filled me with thoughts of adventure with its unique combination of history, travel, fantasy and vampires. It’s an ambitious tome full of big ideas and spanning multiple timelines, but unfortunately, its potential wasn’t fully realised and was let down by its long-windedness, poor character distinctions and its anticlimactic ending. And yet, I am glad I read it and would definitely recommend it to anyone 14+ who is interested in vampire lore, Dracula and history because you’ll find yourself in literary heaven!
Writing Style: 4/5
Character Development: 2/5
Would I recommend this book? Kinda on the fence.