Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Historian: A Review

W. Somerset Maugham opened his classic novel The Razor's Edge with the line "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving," and that sentiment certainly applied to me as I began reading Elizabeth's Kostova's novel The Historian. Having now finished her mammoth debut novel, the feeling really hasn't gone away.

The premise of the novel had grabbed me from the first time I read the publisher's blurb: a search across Europe, spanning three generations, in an effort to discover if Vlad Dracula, the historical 15th century impaler, might somehow still be alive. The market has been flooded with vampire books over the past several years (particularly in the Young Adult market), but a really good Dracula novel is always entertaining, and that was my hope for The Historian. Well, it was good...and it also wasn't.

As noted above, Kostova started with a really good premise. Stories with exotic locales, danger, and tried-and-true villains are typically a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. She also has a particular talent for historical detail; I came away from this book feeling like I was ready for a final exam on 15th century Eastern European history. And the clues that the main characters find along the way do a commendable job of moving the plot forward.

However, it is very difficult to care about these characters, given their two-dimensional limitations. Where Kostova excels as a historian (which is where her background apparently lies) she fails at creating characters we can relate to and empathize with. In addition, the dialog fails except when relating historical events, and to make matters worse, the book is nearly 650 pages long; it would have been better at half that length.

The biggest problem with this particular "Dracula" novel, however, is a complete lack of both Dracula and any type of suspense. At no point in the book was I even mildly alarmed, let alone actually scared, and a Dracula that's not scary is like chicken-fried steak without gravy: it may look like the real thing, but it's not.

I normally write reviews of books I think readers will enjoy. In this case I felt compelled to warn readers not to spend 650 pages worth of their valuable time on a book that is simply not worth it. If you want Dracula (or vampires in general), you're better off sticking with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Sometimes the original is still the best.


  1. I read this a few months ago. I loved the premise of this book. I felt a little overwhelmed towards the middle of it, because it seemed as if the subject of Eastern European 15th century history suddenly dominated the story. The characters got lost in it as well as the story line. The characters themselves could have been developed more, as you said.
    And-Dracula/Vlad. He is merely hinted at throughout the entire book.
    I thought this would be a great book, but it turned out to be so-so.

  2. I was going to give this book a try this year after have read Dracula a couple of months ago. But, if it's this bad then I could fill my 650pages worth of time with something I wouldn't regret.

    Thank you!