Prices for book: Historian
Book ISBN: 9780316067942
Author(s): Elizabeth Kostova
Document type: Mass Market Paperbound
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Good Idea, Poor Execution, Remarkably Enjoyable Nevertheless
I tend to agree with many other reviewers that this book is contrived and often quite bad. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly readable for all of its problems. Craig Kenneth Bryan's review is a good start of where things go wrong in here. But, unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Problems with the book include: inaccuracy in historical details, contrived storytelling and plotting, indistinguishable (and boring!) characters, overly (and inappropriately) detailed. I am almost sorry that I read this book. In the end, I profited from having read it, only in learning what NOT to do in my own literary endeavors.
Perhaps what is most unfortunate about this is that the book had so much potential for good. Whereas many stories exist as testaments to their authors' ability to write dialogue, a good plot, fascinating characters, creepy moods and settings, and what not, this book, properly handled, could have encompassed all of these, and have been quite a treasure. Instead, all that you can take away from it is, in my estimation, a reasonable approximation of how an athropologist or a historian would follow folklore to find Dracula. (Hint: NOT like Indiana Jones.)
Also note that a few spoilers exist in this review.
The plot of this book is atrocious. This book is some 600 pages long. In that amount of time, there should have been much more detailed plot here. Instead, the book focuses mainly on the voyages of three groups in their attempts to find Dracula. This would be a great plot, except for the fact that almost no action occurs in the present tense. Which means, essentially, that at least one-third of it will have no danger (we know that character is still alive after his efforts to track the nosferatu). Another third of it is equally meaningless, as the characters don't encounter any trouble at all until the laughable climax of the book. The last third is also deprived of most action. Almost everything that happens is either in the past or not really dangerous. We are distanced from all of it, giving a rather clinical impression.
A hint to any authors reading this. Your climax should probably NOT be one and a half pages in the course of a 600 page book. The confrontation between Dracula and the other characters should have been epic in scope and detailed in its resolution. Instead, start to finish, it was a page and a half. So bad.
My favorite awful plot moment is the explanation of what happened between Dr. Rossi and his former love. This was a moment of such pure awfulness that I actually laughed out loud and read it to my wife. It isn't supposed to be that bad, I would guess, but, boy. So bad. If you are going to resort to a deus ex machina to resolve a dangling plot thread, for god's sake, don't commit an even greater authorial sin and make it stupid and pointless in addition.
My favorite wasted plot device is the mysterious little books that crop up throughout the novel. They are an intriguing device, with little explanation (none of which is very satisfying, as it seems contradictory). I wish that more had been made of them.
So, if the plot is this bad, are the characters at least compelling? Perhaps. If you stuck them all together and made one character out of them. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters are those that don't matter. The side characters, such as Aunt Eva, the professor in Turkey, and the evil librarian, are far more interesting than Dracula, Dr. Rossi, the father of the girl, his co-conspiriator, the girl herself, or her boyfriend. This inversion is rather damaging to remaining interested in the story.
Moreover, as some others have pointed out, the characters are all the same, or at least carved from the same mould. There are individual peccadilloes, but there is nothing here to make the characters interesting or separate.
The settings in the book are a strong point, but not enough to make up for the other weaknesses here. Moreover, they are described, endlessly. In addition, they are often described in places where said description is bewildering. A man is trapped in the tomb of Dracula, and he probably has only a few days to live. He spends some of that time describing his captor's dress. WHY?
I think that the themes of the story are darkness and love. The darkness represented by Dracula and his minions threatens to overcome the family of the girl, Dr. Rossi, and everyone else, eventually. Love is represented by the white hats, who are searching for Dr. Acula.
E. Point of View
The point of view shifts amongst the main characters, depending upon whose letters you are currently reading. Doesn't add anything to the story.
So awful. The overly poetic descriptions of some places aside, and the few pleasant descriptions excepted, there were so many things about the aesthetics of this book that didn't work for me. As this is such an ephemeral topic, however, I will limit my comments to one particular authorial stylistic convention: the use of letters to tell much of the story. Much of the story is told in letters between characters in the book, from the girl's lost mother to her, from her father to her, from Rossi in Rumania to his friend in England, etc.
This can be a very pleasant way to tell a (certain kind of) story. (That type is not an action story. Or a story that should have any action.) In this case, it failed spectacularly.
In order for this convention to be usfeul, you have to ask "What am I gaining by telling the story in this fashion?" (Because you are losing coherence, currency, and inserting an extra wall between yourself and the reader.) You'd better be gaining SOMETHING, or you are simply making a mess. Letters between two people can give you an excellent sense of their relationship and their thoughts. Their form of expression and their senses. If you are gaining something, then, by all means. But if you are doing it for no reason other than to insert an additional layer between yourself and the reader, please. Stop.
A story with a lot of potential, almost all of it squandered. Apparently, there was a lot of hype surrounding this book. I didn't know this until after I'd read it, or I wouldn't have purchased it, even from the bargain bin (where I got a hardback copy for less than ten dollars). While there are occasions where a quality book finds its way into a bargain bin, it is far more common for hype to surround a book that does not deserve it. This is the case with this book.
The plot is agonizingly slow and, at times, laughably awful. The characters are often indistinguishable, and never interesting, unless they are side characters who contribute little to the story. The settings are nice, but often described too lavishly to support, rather than overwhelm, the remainder of the book. The authorial fiat of telling the story in letters is poorly chosen, as it becomes nothing more than a narrative lacking currency. In short, almost nothing was done right and many, many things were done wrong. Despite this, it is surprisingly readable. Although the story was bad, I enjoyed reading it.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, and don't mind these problems, then it is worth getting. I note that as of this writing, the paperback is about to come out and Amazon.com has bargain hardback copies, so if you are looking for something that will kill some time, it may be worth it for you. If you demand good literature, though, you may want to avoid this one. This isn't it.
All you need to know
Dracula is alive...and collecting books! He's also trying to collect librarians, though less successfuly- probably because the job interview involves ridiculously boring travelogues and biting.
This book attemmpts to make librarians sexy and exciting.
Do you see the problem here?
M. Pantoja (Amazon.com)
Intricate Web of History, Fiction & Horror. Flawed, but Still Compelling to "Dracula" Fans.
"The Historian" is a long and winding tale tailor-made for fans and scholars of Bram Stoker's enduring Victorian horror novel "Dracula". I say for scholars, because the novel is about scholars of both the fictional vampire Count Dracula and his real-life namesake Vlad Dracula Tepes, the 15th century Wallachian prince remembered for his cruelty in the West and revered for his great military victories against the Ottoman Turks in Eastern Europe. Elizabeth Kostova has taken inspiration from the uncertainty surrounding Vlad Tepes' final resting place and Stoker's association of his name with vampirism to weave a story of history, horror, and fantasy stretching back five centuries to Tepes' own time, through the second half of the 20th century, and into our own.
The narrator is a middle-aged historian who recounts an incredible tale from her youth, when she was a sheltered16-year-old living in Amsterdam where her widowed father, a retired historian who fashioned a career for himself as a diplomat. It was 1972 when she discovered a book on the top shelf of her father's library: a leatherbound volume filled with blank pages, except for a print of an elaborate woodcut in the center. The print was of a dragon, labeled "DRAKULA". When she asks her father Paul about the book, it stirs fearful memories in him, and he begins to recount the tale of how he acquired the book 20 years before, where it had taken him, the frightful things he had seen and done...still left unfinished.
Perhaps in homage to "Dracula", "The Historian" is partly epistolary, the story being told by the narrator and through letters from various parties. There are even letters inside of letters. The adventure unfolds at a leisurely pace but turns into a page-turner once it reaches critical mass. The action takes place over three generations, in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s, and there are times when the storylines run simultaneously, in the same chapter. The book is well over 600 pages long due to a great deal of superfluous material. The author has crossed a travelogue with a thriller, and the resulting verbosity will undoubtedly put some readers off. That and the fact that our narrator is a dull character herself nearly had me bored, before I became engrossed in the intricate interlacing of history, fiction, and suspense.
I had to laugh at the vampire librarian who seems to lurk in all the world's rare book collections. The heroic historians gave me a chuckle too. These people are academics. They don't normally see much action. And here they are flitting around Europe, behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War, discovering secret societies, conspiracies of evil, guided by ancient books and tattered maps, searching for clues (where else?) in libraries. Such a bookish cast of characters. The heroes are historians, the villains librarians. It seems so much like a historian's fantasy to actually get out and do something, that something in those old documents would speak to today. It's a good thing I'm bookish too, and an amateur historian. I enjoyed "The Historian", but I doubt that I would did I not already have an interest in "Dracula" and some historical background on Vlad Tepes.
I saw this book everywhere, and after reading the back of it different times on several different book buying shopping trips, I decided to buy it. I never finished it. Here's why - I realize it is supposed to be written in the style of maybe an 18th century writer, but the narrator is not an 18th century person. It's far too verbose. The author made me want to take out my red editing pen and, as we English teachers say, make the paper bleed. I cannot read a book I want to edit. It's a shame though, because the book is well plotted, and the story line did hold my interest. Although, I suspected what happened to her mother way before the book reveals it, which is in the climatic ending. Yes, I skipped ahead because I actually did care enough to find out what happened. Maybe if nothing else other than to confirm I was right because some authors do surprise me from time to time, (Jodi Picoult, especially). Anyways, because of this, I recommend that you borrow the book from the library. Don't buy it.
Kathleen Harsch (Amazon.com)
Bloated, Overhyped and Anti-climactic
Writing workshops insist that critical readers offer compliments before moving on to criticisms, so that's where I'll start. Kostova's use of language, setting, and atmosphere is spot-on--lovely and evocative, with a keen eye for detail. Likewise, the research on display throughout--from the dark corners of Dracula lore to the everyday paranoia of life in an Eastern bloc country during the Cold War--is solid and compelling.
But at the end of the day, though language is the medium--the window-dressing--the ultimate goal is *story*, and The Historian is woefully short on it. I could, perhaps, forgive The Historian's many shortcomings in light of its better qualities if it weren't for the hype this thing engendered upon publication. Now that I've read it, the level of praise and attention this book has garnered just makes me angry.
Seriously--what 700-page novel proports to be all about Dracula--but then barely gives the reader any time with Dracula? Then rather ignominiously (SPOILER!!!) offs him with a single pistol-shot during only his second (short) appearance? For that matter, what 700 page first novel by a previously unpublished author, involving three poorly interwoven narratives in three different time periods, all of them made up largely of people visiting libraries and monasteries, reading dusty old books, and then telling one another about what they read--what novel with *that* pedigree--garners the big money publishing contract, widespread promotion and heaps of critical and popular praise that The Historian won?
Did the editors who pushed to buy and publish this thing never read the 'show, don't tell' memo that they probably hand off to most first-time novelists who approach them (and get rejected)? Or the 'kill your darlings' advice levied by William Faulkner? Or maybe their 'built-in, shock proof [...] detector' (courtesy of Ernest Hemingway) was in the shop that week?
Bottom line: Kostova may have good books still in her, but The Historian is bloated, meandering, unreasonably coy, and completely lacking in tension, suspense, excitement, or narrative drive.
If you really want a compelling intellectual mystery, go read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.
Or simply re-read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Even for all its epistolary awkwardness and Victorian bulk, it's a more engaging, exciting, and interesting book than The Historian could ever hope to be.
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