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Onyx reviews: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Three timelines thread through The Historian, a literary historical suspense novel that garnered pre-publication comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. The earliest timeline involves Professor Bartolomew Rossi's Eastern European research and travels in the 1930s. His doctoral student, later an American diplomat known to readers only as Paul, recounts his exploits in the 1950s. Paul's teenaged daughter, who lost her mother when very young and is not named at all except by an off-handed reference late in the book, is the recipient of all this lore and undertakes her own adventures in 1972. Given the book's dedication and fictional introduction (set in 2008), readers are encouraged to identify with the author; her lack of name in the text enhances this.

The focus of these three historians' compulsions is the man who inspired the Dracula myth, a ruthless fifteenth-century Romanian leader known variously as Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler and Prince Vlad Dracule, the latter word meaning "dragon."

He gained infamy for his penchant for impaling the heads or bodies of his enemies at the city gates as a warning to others. He is said to have looked out over fields of impaled bodies from a tower in his castle.

When he was finally captured and executed, his head was delivered to the sultan in Constantinople as evidence of his death. The whereabouts of the rest of his corpse is the source of numerous legends. Each of the three historians comes to believe that Tepes really was a vampire and that he survives to this day. They wander Eastern Europe, from Istanbul to Bulgaria to Wallachia and Transylvania in Romania. Along the way, each scours libraries across the continent, looking for hidden clues as to where Tepes' body was buried.

In keeping with the style of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was told entirely through letters, notes and journal entries, Kostova tells only the contemporary story as narrative. The sixteen-year-old protagonist stumbles upon a strange book containing a stack of letters addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor" in her father's study in their house in Amsterdam, a discovery that inspires her father to tell her a strange tale.

A mysterious book appeared in Paul's study carrel while he was working on a doctoral thesis about 17th century Dutch trade at an unnamed American university. The volume was clearly very old. Inside, it was blank except for a woodcut of a dragon that filled the central two pages. In the creature's claws was a banner bearing the word "Drakulya." His supervisor, Rossi, was stunned to see the book. Twenty years earlier he had received a similar volume, launching his studies into the lore of Dracula.

Rossi passed his papers on to Paul and vanished the same evening, leaving behind only a few blood spatters on his desk and the ceiling of his office. Paul believed that to locate his doctoral advisor he must track down Dracula. He departed immediately for Europe, accompanied by a young anthropologist he met at the library while researching Eastern history. She was Helen Rossi, Professor Rossi's daughter from a brief tryst he had while in Romania. Helen never met her father and was determined to pay Rossi back by trumping him at his own research.

Helen's family connections behind the Iron Curtain helped the couple travel into Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, but their studies drew the attention of numerous factions who were determined that they not succeed-and a couple who were determined that they do succeed, but for different reasons. Among these were ardent communists, characters who Paul and Helen came to believe are vampires, and members of a five-hundred-year-old organization determined to root out and destroy any remaining traces of the Order of the Dragon, followers of Dracula. Along the way, they met-sometimes by the type of coincidence that stretches the believability of fiction-several other people who were the recipients of mysterious volumes like the ones Paul and Rossi found.

In the modern story, the protagonist travels through Western Europe in the company of an Oxford student, hot on her father's trail after he mysteriously abandons her in England. Something he discovered in the Oxford University library spurred him back into action, and the trail will lead them to a final confrontation and numerous astonishing revelations.

Before his departure, Paul took his daughter with him on many of his travels. Over the course of months, she persuades him to divulge his many secrets, which leads to long sections of narrative in which he recounts portions of his early adventures with Helen. After his sudden departure from Oxford, he leaves behind a lengthy document that finishes the tale. Paul himself was the beneficiary of numerous letters he and Helen found during their travels, primarily Rossi's, some of which they discover in Romania and Bulgaria. Rossi's research also relies on the letters of medieval monks who traveled with Tepes' body en route to his final burial place.

The book's interleaving structure, switching primarily between Paul's story and the narrator's with occasional revelations from Professor Rossi's era, ensures that readers don't learn too many important details early on. In addition to the twentieth century plots, which illuminates life in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era, those on Dracula's trail also learn much about fifteenth century Eastern Europe, the domain of the Turks, the Ottomans, the Christians, and lawless warlords like Tepes.

Astute readers may surmise some of the book's biggest secrets long before they are revealed-Helen Rossi's identity, for example, or the nature of the valuable relic the 15th century monks are searching for.

When Dracula finally enters the story in person, he is unable to live up to the legend. He admires modern developments-the atomic bomb, for example, and the Cold War-but he seems interested in little more than cataloging his vast library. He's still a vampire, who goes on about his vampirely business of sucking blood, but he doesn't seem all that threatening. He waxes poetic about the purity of evil, but in the end he is undone in an almost dismissive fashion.

Kostova's publisher has done an excellent job in stirring up interest in The Historian. The novel sold after a heated auction for an astonishingly large advance for a first-time author. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code make for good promotion, but are both untrue and unfair. The extent of the similarity between the two is that both rely to a certain extent on uncovering centuries-old secrets in European history. However, revelations come quickly and easily to characters in The Da Vinci Code as they race from one city to the next. In The Historian, every revelation requires tedious and time-consuming research in musty archives and libraries. Instead of racing to Paris or London, Rossi, Helen and Paul travel to increasingly backward and remote parts of Europe, regions fraught with ancient tradition, legends and folklore.

Simply put, The Historian is not fast paced. Many will say that it could have used a stronger editorial hand. At nearly 650 pages, Kostova takes her time telling the story. Who's to say what the book would have looked like if 150-200 pages were trimmed to increase the pacing? By taking her time, alternating snippets of contemporary narrative with longer epistolary sections, the author conveys the sense of history and time. The tale of Paul and Helen, which is the novel's central focus, takes place in a time without cell phones or easy travel in certain parts of the world. Research isn't done on the Internet, but by consulting with librarians and other historians.

Letters are the books' biggest conceit. These aren't brief missives, but pages-long treatises. Even Rossi's final letter, which Paul and Helen find under tragic circumstances and was written well after the professor's disappearance in less than comfortable surroundings, reads like narrative rather than the urgent ramblings of a man in fear of his mortal soul.

If readers are willing to look past this, The Historian is an adventure for a different era. One where every pursuit needn't occur at the speed of sound, and where the characters aren't in constant fear for their lives. There is suspense in The Historian, but it isn't artificially contrived to propel the story. The mere presence of vampires is enough to create tension, and the plot is propelled by the urgent need to find Professor Rossi before it is too late.

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