Elizabeth Kostova dives deep into the history of Dracula in The Historian. It’s slightly more than 700 pages, and yet Dracula is a minor character. This was my second reading, done together with friends from Litsy and organized by Ami at Literature Goals.
When I first discovered The Historian, it was a serendipitous bookstore moment. The massive paperback was on a table, and I started reading the first few paragraphs right then. I was hooked. My short review from the first reading, some years ago. “One of the absolute BEST vampire books I have ever read! Deeply layered and complex story and characters.”
I was more enchanted by Kostova’s story and writing style the first time through than the second.
I’ve decided this isn’t a vampire book. It’s historical fiction and Dracula is a minor character. It’s about a search for Dracula, and includes highly detailed descriptions of the lands where the legend originated as well as related historical figures and events. So you must like books with a lot of telling. For example, one character tells his story via a letter, and the process of finding and reading the letter is told by another character. It’s a complex and layered storytelling method, which I honestly found tiresome at times.
If you’re looking for a vampire story with action like, “He leapt on her and devoured the soft, satiny skin at her neck,” it’s not here very much. When it is, the author almost makes it a throwaway moment focusing instead on describing the library where the attack happens. The Historian’s action is primarily about historians who are hunting for documents, letters, and books. It tends towards, “He told me that he found a letter that said the tomb might be here. Or it could be there. We’ll go try the first place.” I’m not saying one is better or worse than the other. But they’re significantly different, and I prefer to align your expectations with the book’s reality.
I wish Kostova had built more suspense and tension into The Historian. The pace is so glacial that suspense is an anathema. You can’t have it both ways. Having read her more recent book, The Shadow Land, this year I know this is just her style. In her recent interviews Kostova talked about her love for the Balkan countries, especially Bulgaria. Oh does that show in this book! Her descriptions are always on the positive side. For example, when describing a tiny village she doesn’t say shabby, but rather quaint. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I sensed some rose-colored glasses on the author’s eyes.
Based on all of these factors, I’m revising my original five stars down to three on the second reading. It makes me sad to do this, especially because I’ve sung the praises of The Historian for a long time. But so it is.