Hunting Dracula with The Historian

I honestly never meant for Geek Buffet to end up with a whole series of posts on vampire fiction, but here I am, adding to it again. (Previous posts here, here, and here.) I picked up The Historian to take with me on my long business trip in large part because it looked interesting enough and, perhaps more importantly, it looked long, thereby cutting down on the number of individual books I would be putting in my luggage. It turned out to be a good choice, so if you’re looking for summer travel reading as well, read on.

I mentioned before that most of my vampire fiction reading has ended up being at an interesting intersection of vampire and detective. The Historian doesn’t quite fit that model, although the story definitely provides enough mystery and suspense for the reader to make you have to know how it ends. (Or at least it did me.) The title, interestingly enough, could apply to any number of the characters in the book: the narrator, her father, or her father’s advisor. Truly, there are three stories going on in the book, from each of these historians’ perspectives, creating a very layered effect as the story travels back in time through three generations of characters and then forward again, (which at least one person I know found off-putting enough that she didn’t get past the first couple of chapters, but really, you should keep going.)

The stories are all really the same story, of course, and everything converges nicely at the end. The premise is this: The narrator begins the book by saying that she wishes to present the story of how her family became so involved in, and later known for, the search for Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula. She begins at the beginning of her own journey, when she was still in high school and discovered a strange book in her father’s library, blank except for a woodcut illustration covering the two pages in the exact center of the book depicting a dragon and the word “Drakula.” It is also accompanied by a bunch of very old letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Her curiosity piqued, she finally asks her father about them.

Thus her father begins telling her the drawn-out tale of how he met her late mother, meaning that his story starts when he was a history student studying for his doctorate. He found the strange book on his study carrel and took it to his advisor. The advisor had also found a book in his own youth, and ends up bequeathing the notes of all of his subsequent research into it to the narrator’s father. The advisor disappears from his office that very night, though, leaving behind a small pool of blood and nothing else.

The narrator’s father reads all the advisor’s letters about his research and discovers that the legend of Dracula may be much more real than previously suspected. In the library he meets a young woman who also appears to have been checking into Dracula, which seems like an entirely too-remarkable coincidence, given all the things that have begun happening in his recent life. She claims to be the illegitimate daughter of the missing advisor, born in Eastern Europe after he had interviewed her mother extensively about Vlad’s history in the region, (and incidentally fallen in love with her, but then apparently abandoned her.) After growing up, the woman decided to outdo her absent father by publishing even better Dracula research than his, in order to catch his attention. She joins the search for the advisor, which turns into a search for Dracula as the evidence mounts that Dracula is still alive and responsible for the advisor’s disappearance.

Their search takes them to Turkey, then to Hungaria and Romania, still at the time part of the Eastern Bloc. They discover huge amounts of historical evidence and lore about Dracula, and run into several other recipients of the mysterious dragon books who help them out along the way. The amount of historical detail is amazing, as is the incredible immediate relevance it takes on in the context of the search, 500 years removed.

I have to stop before I give too much away, but from the advisor’s storyline we move back out to the father’s story and the mystery surrounding the narrator’s mother, then to the narrator’s continued recounting of her teenage involvement in the search for Dracula, and then, at the end, to the narrator’s present life.

This book, in contrast to the ones discussed on Geek Buffet earlier, takes a much more traditional black-and-white view of vampires. This is not unexpected, given that it deals directly with the Dracula myth. Vampires are not redeemable creatures in this world, and Dracula is particularly evil, but in a interestingly three-dimensional way. Tracking his life through history reveals him as a much more realistic political figure of the time, and delves into the historical antagonism between the early Christian and Muslim worlds. Dracula was part of the Christian world and is revealed to have an order of monks dedicated to his preservation and patronage. He now appears to take a particular interest in historians and librarians. He is behind the appearance of the strange dragon books on chosen individuals’ desks, but his motivations, when revealed, are not quite what one expects.

It’s a darker book, but not gory, and not particularly horrific. I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize it when adding it to my Goodreads list. It’s certainly fiction, and deals a great deal with history, but is it also historical fiction? Is it fantasy? It’s not really horror, nor is it really a thriller, though it might be called a tale of suspense. Read it and tell me what you think.

-posted by Dana

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6 Responses to Hunting Dracula with The Historian

  1. Jennie says:

    I freaking love this book. SO MUCH LOVE.

    I just curled up and blasted Rachmaninoff choral music and read and read and read.

    It’s vampires, it’s historical fiction, it’s mystery and… it’s literary fiction.

    And NOTHING has made librarians look so damn sexy in a long long time.

  2. Sonetka says:

    Cool – I should look this one up next time I’m at the library (about 48 hours from now, if history is anything to go by). It’ll be so nice to see vampires acting like, you know, VAMPIRES.

  3. Alder says:

    I loved this book! I think the part I loved the most was all of the travel– it totally made me want to go to Hungary and Turkey!

  4. […] The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber. It’s actually a pretty good choice to follow my review of The Historian, because it’s another story where the present and the past end up intertwined and the main […]

  5. Anna says:

    I really liked this book! You should check out the Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert. Same kind of idea for the plot, but this one talks about Christopher Marlow and Queen Elizabeth’s spy network plus an Alias like modern day PI. My only complaint (for both books) are the some-what soap opera-ish love interest plot lines… or maybe it’s more of a guilty pleasure.

  6. […] Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, was a very engrossing book, which I reviewed over at Geek Buffet, though I feel I should now add the caveat that if you don’t have a lot […]

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