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The Historian    by Elizabeth Kostova order for
by Elizabeth Kostova
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Several different historians, related by mentorship and blood, lead us through their painstaking research, as they follow sparse and fading clues to a legend that has caught and held the popular imagination - that of Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Wallachia, also known as Dracula. The historians' search is haunted by past horrors, and trailed by present monsters lurking in the shadows - and occasionally leaping from them. There are old secret societies, monks and monasteries, ancient lore and mysteries, and information must be sought in police states across the Iron Curtain.

The narrator digs out her own family's history, patiently and persistently, from her father Paul (founder of the Center for Peace and Democracy), over many years of travel together. Paul never speaks of his wife Helen. The story begins after the girl stumbles upon a letter to her father from his friend and mentor, Professor Bartolomeo Rossi, an eminent historian. Paul tells her that he consulted Rossi after mysteriously receiving an ancient book, its pages blank except for 'a great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging' at the center. Rossi told Paul, then a graduate student, that he had received a similar book, and that the original Dracula still lives.

The story moves back and forth in time thereafter following Rossi's, Paul's, and eventually the young narrator's researches all over Europe, in Turkey, Romania, Transylvania and Wallachia (the travel descriptions are fascinating in themselves). There are tragical consequences, as minions of evil react to the uncovering of secrets, and especially of maps. The questors seek Dracula's tomb, whose location seems to have changed through the centuries. Listening to these tales, the young woman learns how her mother and father met, and how their fates intertwined as they pursued the same goal, a chase she is now entangled in herself. With her we wonder how the books were passed to the historians, and why the vampires's minions follow their trails so closely.

The Historian takes us through epic quests lasting the lifetimes of many historians. It's the second literary fantasy tome I've read recently, and shares with the other, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a leisurely, tantalizing development. As such, it's unlikely to appeal to fans of standard fast-moving fantasy fare. However, if you stick with it for a few chapters, this novel grabs you by the neck and won't let go.

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