Monday, September 20, 2010

The Historian

My game plan is to stick with reviewing books with some similarities to mine: medieval Europe, time travel, or music. The Historianby Elizabeth Kostova takes place in 1972, but it is a story within a story within a story, as various characters pursue the historical truth of Vlad Tepes, 15th Century prince of Wallachia. He has come down in history better known as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula (Vlad, Son of the Dragon).


I am currently only a small way through this 704 page book, but I'm in love. Take it as a comment on her writing that I, who have never had the least interest in, or intention of reading, any vampire books, am engrossed in this novel. It is partly that it is a fascinating human interest story, combined with history and mystery, delving so far more into the search, the questions, and the hunt for the real story, than in vampires per se.

But it's also the quality of the writing itself. The more I write, the more I find myself looking at the structure of stories, and, much like The Keep by Jennifer Egan, this one is fascinating. There are three stories, all masterfully woven together, all pointing back to the story of Vlad himself. Like a Chinese puzzle box, it draws the reader in, deeper and deeper, farther and farther back in history.

The book opens with a Note to the Reader,purportedly by the 52 year old historian, and goes from there quickly back to the woman's days as a 16 year old, traveling Europe with her diplomat father. As we read her story of the events of 1972, her father gradually reveals to her his story of the events in the 1950's, which in turn gradually reveals the mysterious events of 1930 which were gradually revealed to him by his mentor and professor who lived them. And piece by piece, we learn the story of Vlad Tepes himself, prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula, Son of the Dragon.

This is a complex structure, yet Ms. Kostova handles it masterfully. I find myself flowing from one story to the other seamlessly, always knowing where we are, feeling as if more layers and intricacies and mysteries are constantly being revealed by one or the other. This may not be to everyone's taste. Some may prefer a more straight-forward storyline, but I enjoy it very much.

Also in the quality of writing department, I am savoring Ms. Kostova's prose. She has a beautiful way with words, unique turns of phrases, and beautiful imagery. I find myself wanting to stop and re-read just for the lyrical sound and the images the words evoke. I find myself wanting to mark certain sentences just so I can find them later and re-read them. Generally, I charge through books, eager to find out What Happens! I'd rather spin this book out over days, enjoying every locale and scene she conjures. Even now, I feel as if I actually experienced the cloistered monastery and enchanting music of the fountain there, high in the Pyrenees-Orientales. I feel as if I sat on the wall myself, looking down on the waterfall that poured down so far the character could only see mist shimmering back up; I feel as if I watched the eagle circling below. I do not often have this feeling with books.

The characters are well-drawn, interesting. They are real and believable, in how their curiosity and disbelief propels them on to look for answers until shocking events create the fear that pulls them back. Like all of us, they are a mix of qualities, better and worse, one moment vowing with selfless courage to find the killer of dear friends, and at another, vowing to live their lives peacefully after all and hope to be left alone.

I am also enjoying the history of this book, as I learn steadily more about the real Vlad Dracula and his wars with Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire.

Will I enjoy the book as much as the book plunges deeper into encounters with the undead? It's not my usual fare, but then, I suspect this is not a typical vampire story, either. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the book.

Read more reviews at: Cym Lowell's Review Party

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