Wednesday, August 17, 2005

50 Book Challenge #42: The Historian

I generally approve of historical novels by graduate students, since I tend to think that any allusions and factoids are more likely to be based in fact due to their immersion in the material. Elizabeth Kostova is a mere Yale grad and MFA student, but her debut novel deserves much of the praise and publicity it's received. Told largely in flashback and epistolary format, it traces the parallel journeys of three generations of vampire hunting historians, all of whom discovered a blank volume with an eerie dragon woodcut and the name "Drakulya" and had tragic and mysterious consequences ensue. The time and place change from chapter to chapter, as does the narrative voice, but Kostova keeps her ducks mostly in a row, and if the ending is a bit of an abrupt disappointment, that's only because she's done such an excellent job of raising our expectations.

Quibble (this probably constitutes a spoiler): one authorial failure here, in my view, was the Kostova's inability to supply a believable motivation for her villain. Is it really believable to portray a bloodthirsty, murderous tyrant as a bibliophile? Just because overeducated bookworms like me (or Kostova) might think reading is the most worthwhile way to spend centuries doesn't mean Vlad the Impaler would agree. Additionally, book collecting seemed to have shouldered aside Vlad's anti-Turkish sentiments. Nearly five hundred years of Ottoman rule and all a magical blooddrinking sociopath has to show for it is a nice library? Shouldn't he have had some examples of successful schemes to undermine Turkish authority? And what was the point of the creepy book distribution: selection of the ultimate librarian? If so, why this inefficient method?

The Historian is less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are engrossing. It is worth a read (and despite its size, a read won't take long; it's a perfect airplane book).
blog comments powered by Disqus