Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (audio)

Book Description:
After a young girl discovers her father's darkest secret, she embarks on a harrowing journey across Europe to complete the quest he never could-to find history's most legendary fiend, Dracula. When a motherless American girl living in Europe finds a medieval book and a package of letters, all addressed ominously to 'my dear and unfortunate successor,' she begins to unravel a thread that leads back to her father's past, his mentor's career, and an evil hidden in the depths of history.
Sounds good doesn't it? Dracula... secrets... a mystery, and evil...
Don't be fooled, this book was far too lengthy and detailed, much of which seemed entirely superfluous. Do I really need to know about old peasant women and their fire dances in Bulgaria - and what does that have to do with finding Dracula?  I'm a lover of historical fiction, but... to me, this read like a travelogue of Eastern Europe and Turkey in the 1950's.  The author spent ten years researching for the book and undoubtedly intended to use every bit of it for her novel.  Well, good for her, but all the needless detail ruined what could have been a good suspenseful tale.
More often than not, The Historian reminded me of the Dracula version of The Da Vinci Code, but not as thrilling.  Instead of the Catholic Church, we learn all about the evil Vlad the Impaler, Eastern Europe in the fifteenth century and French monasteries and the monks that kept their secrets.   The story is bogged down with endless details, descriptions and historical references to the point where I lost track of the gist of the story.  It didn't help that it jumped around from 1972 to the 1950's and then to 1930 sometimes with no warning whatsoever.  At least in the audiobook I could differentiate since it was a different voice or accent for each period, but it was distracting to say the least.
As the story begins we meet a thirteen year old girl who's father is a diplomat living in Amsterdam.  She is a precocious child who has a knack for history and learning.  Upon raiding her father's library one day, she comes across a mysterious old book that is blank all but the middle page which is a florid and detailed woodcut picture of a dragon.  This becomes a theme in the book. Certain historians with promise come across this same strange book in the oddest of places - including her father, his mentor, Professor Bartolomew Rossi and, coincidentally, a few other people that crop up in this novel.
Over time, the teenage girl questions her father about the book and he reluctantly tells her his story that begins with his mentor, Rossi who is his professor in college in the United States.  Rossi's story begins in 1930 at Oxford when he first comes upon the same book with the dragon with the name "Drakulya" inscribed beneath it.  He is intrigued by the woodcut and begins to do research on Dracula which takes him to Romania and Istanbul.  Yet, there are evil forces that prevent him from continuing.  It scares him from continuing his research until the 1950's when a young student, Paul, comes across the same strange book and questions Rossi about it.  What a coincidence!
Paul takes up the quest of Dracula after his beloved mentor, Professor Rossi, disappears shortly after telling Paul of his strange and bizarre story of what he learned twenty years earlier about Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, secret maps, vampires and all sorts of odd things.  Paul begins his research and soon meets Helen, an enigmatic and beautiful Romanian (or is she Transylvanian?) woman who also happens to be an expert on Dracula - and wonder of wonders! She is Professsor Rossi's long lost daughter that he never acknowledged!  What a small world! 
Paul and Helen join forces and begin their search for the missing Professor Rossi and the burial place of Vlad the Impaler who we now know is Dracula the Undead, a vampire who is still walking around terrorizing unsuspecting historians!  
Still with me?
Meanwhile, this is all in flashbacks, for Paul is the diplomat in Amsterdam that is narrating this entire tale in segments to his inquisitive teenage daughter while they go from place to place in infinite detail.  Then Paul has to leave unexpectedly while visiting Oxford with his daughter, who decides to follow him to a French monastery.  She hooks up with a young student, Barley, that is assigned to escort her back to her home in Amsterdam,  Only she talks Barley into escorting her to France instead and en route they sleep together (she's older now, maybe closer to eighteen at this point, but I'm unsure).  Why the author even bothered with this sideline I don't even know, it was so unnecessary.

After much detail, loads of descriptions of small villages and background history it all comes to a climax in a monastery somewhere in France (I think, I lost track).  Paul has left his daughter at Oxford because he has learned that his wife and the mother of his daughter is alive.  It is Helen, Professor Rossi's daughter, his partner in crime who he met in the 1950's and fell in love with while searching for the missing Professor Rossi.  After believing she has been dead for almost fifteen years, he drops everything to find her.  We learn that she faked her own death so she could search on her own for the fiend, Dracula and thus end his reign of terror that has lasted for nearly five centuries.  Did I mention that Helen turns out to be a descendant of Vlad the Impaler as well?  I told you it reminded me of Da Vinci.

Now, this all sounds like a really exciting story, doesn't it?  Trust me, it's not.  It was slow and plodding and the story was burdened with such excessive detail I found it hard to keep track of the story and the whole point of this book!  The basic gist of it is, Paul, the diplomat is in search of his (what he thought) dead wife, Helen..His daughter goes after him so they can all seek out the real Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler) and kill him once and for all.   If you can sift through all the mucky muck detail, be my guest.  This book could have been shortened by at least 300 pages to make it a more concise, suspenseful novel instead of what reads as a 1001 Cities to See in Eastern Europe Before You Die travel book.

On audio, the narrators, (there were two, Justine Eyre and Paul Michael, one for the daughter and another for all the other voices) were good.  Paul Michael who did the voices of the father, Rossi and Helen and the many other foreign accents did a great job, but I was disconcerted by his American persona as the father, since it was the same exact voice he did for the protaganist in The Lost Symbol (which I did not like), so it took me a while to get over that.  Justine Eyre was satisfactory, her role was minor in the grand scheme of things.

Am I being too harsh in regard to this book?  Maybe, but all I can say is I was fed up with this audiobook (all 26 hours of it!) by the half way point.   Only the most die hard historical fiction enthusiasts will appreciate it.  The writing itself was well done, but it needed an editor that wasn't afraid to edit a lot of the filler out.  I kept with it since it was one of the selections on my 2010 TBR Challenge list - and thank goodness, I can now cross it off the list!  Sheesh!



Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

thank you for the honest review!! i have had this one on my shelf for AGES. but i always thought it seemed to long to start it. sounds like it is loooooong.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Carrie, I wouldn't rush out to read this unless you are a die hard historical fiction lover, in which the longer the book the better, you love details, and Dracula.

Misfit said...

Well, I'm a die hard HF lover and you've put me on notice to think twice, or at least go in with my eyes wide open. I also appreciate a critical review, and frankly when I do go to sites like Amazon that's the first place I go, the critical opinions.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Misfit, I'm not sure if you'll like this or not. I know you love HF, but I think the reason why I was so annoyed with this book was because it could have been so much better if it had been edited correctly. I love details too (as in Diana Gabaldon and SK Penman) but here it just overpowered the main story, which is supposed to be eerie and creepy, almost scary! Granted, there were some tense moments in the book, but they were far and few between, lost in the the descriptive narrative of the settings and the introductions of the new characters with their hard to remember names. Not only was it a who's who of experts on vampires in Eastern Europe and Turkey, I kept rolling my eyes at how Paul and Helen just "happened" to meet every one of them in their travels - and they all had the little dragon book too! I could go on and on, it the book had been shorter and focused more on the actual search for Rossi it would have been so much better. Instead by the end, I was just so relieved to have the book over with, I couldn't care less what had happened or why - entirely anticlimatic.

Yvette said...

Julie, you got further than I did with this book. I read a few early chapters last year sometime and almost immediately gave up. Obviously you have more stamina than I do. ;)
I, too, had expected a terrific book. I hate when that happens.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Yvette, well after hearing about your experience, I don't feel so bad about knocking the book so much now! Thanks!

~Jennifer~ said...

Great review! I felt the same way. The overwhelming amount of unnecessary description just dragged on and on and on. I haven't read much historical fiction and I was afraid they were all like this. I basic idea of the book was great, but by the end it was hard to care how everything turned out.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Jennifer - thank you, another believer that this book is not all it's cracked to be - we should start a club! LOL! I know just how you feel, I couldn't care less at the end either!

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