Saturday, June 26, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
ISBN: 978-0-316-15454-3


Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.


My Thoughts:

Well, hmm. I’m a little torn over my feelings for this book. On the one hand, there are a number of things I really enjoyed, on the other hand, I was often terribly bored or annoyed and really just wanted to get to the end so I could read something else.

The thing that bothered me the most were the constant jumps between the different story-lines. The book is set up as a story within a story within a story type deal, tracing the history of involvement with this mysterious book, which is fine. I like those kinds of onion-structure narratives. What bothered me was when there were two or three paragraphs from one story-line and then maybe two pages of a different one and then a chapter break and then we were back at the original story-line. This jumping back and forth made it really hard to get involved with any of the stories, because the moment you were connected you’d be wrenched out and into a different story and time. Fortunately, toward the middle of the book, Kostova started to just tell one strand at a time for a while, which made it much easier to enjoy the mystery and the descriptions of beautiful and exotic (to me) places.

I didn’t like the end at all. Everything wrapped up way too neatly if you ask me and the attempt in the epilogue to undermine that neat ending and rekindle some of the mystery seemed somewhat cheap.

The amount of research and careful planning that must have gone into the writing of this book is respectable and I tip my hat to the author for her dedication. I really appreciated all of the descriptions of monasteries and libraries and the life of a Graduate student – I only wish I was such a good student. It’s a little strange to think that my thesis topic would, in the world of this book, make me a potential person of interest for Vlad the Impaler, but hey, if he wants to come over and have tea some cloudy afternoon I’m okay with that. Anyway. The book does a great job of making you want to travel to Istanbul and Budapest, so if you’re the kind of person who likes to travel it might give you a slight case of wanderlust.

Spoiler alert, I’m about to discuss actual plot elements.

Something that I’m not sure I agree with, or how I feel about it, is that Kostova turned Vlad into some sort of militaristic, undead bibliophile collecting books through the millennia. I have no idea if this is historically accurate or not, but it sort of struck me as an odd thing to include, considering that she was doing her best to make him be a monster. A love of books, even in a bloodthirsty tyrant, seems to me to be an endearing characteristic. So, I don’t know how I feel about it. I mean, I like it – I just don’t know that I like it as part of this story. I suppose it was necessary as a motif for his actions throughout the book.

End spoilers.

So, on the whole, I’d say it was an okay read. Certainly not one of my favourites, and definitely not as gripping as the blurb would lead you to believe. If you’re interested in libraries, monasteries, Vlad the Impaler, or simply following a bunch of crazy historians around on a quest, you might like it. If you’re looking for a quick, thrilling read you may want to look elsewhere. There is action here, and mystery, but it’s not edge-of-your-seat type stuff.


  1. i bought this book the day it came out how ever long ago it was and loved it, i recommend to people frequently, despite only reading it once.

  2. I got the sense that people either love or hate this book. I'm somewhere in the middle.

    What about it makes you recommend it?

  3. @doomwench i read it a long time ago but i remember being engrossed into the stories within stories. i usually hate that stuff but for some reason it engrossed me. i though the writing was strong and the descriptions were vivid. maybe i'll reread it soon.

  4. I really loved this book. I thought it did get a little tedious at times but I think that was a sacrifice the author made in order to replicate the methodology of a historian - which the reader, in a way, becomes as the story progresses. I loved the interconnectivity of the research which really reminded me of getting my degree in History, even though I studied less exciting subjects then Vlad the Impaler. I also really liked the author's portrayal of Dracula. For most of the book I doubted they would actually show him in the present narrative - instead leaving him in flashbacks and stories from the past - so when he finally made his appearance I was thrilled. I loved the idea of him as a book lover...what reader hasn't wished for all the time in the world to read all the books they want to? Great review Irene. Do you plan to read Kostova's other book?

  5. @bairdduvessa: Heh, it might be time for a re-read, especially if you really enjoyed it.

    @S.P.O: I actually agree with all of your points. I guess from my review I might come across as not having liked the book, I liked it okay. I just think it would have benefited from being split into separate sections for the different narratives. Having them all mixed up really detracted from my immersion. As for the Vlad book-loving thing - I like the idea, I just think it humanizes him a little too much in some ways. And I wasn't aware that she has another book out. I'll have to look into that.