The Historian is aptly named: it brims with nerd appeal and libraries, and it draws its horror from history. The 16-year-old narrator reads about the “unbelievable cruelty” of Vlad the Impaler, who burned 400 boys and impaled a large family, all before he really got going. Impaled not through the heart, but up from the genitals through the mouth or head. The certain sense is that these bits are not inventions.
The Historian sometimes reads like its own movie adaptation, but it taps into things greater than itself. If you stay put and drill down, places change their names like so many garments. Kostova focuses on cities at the crossroads of East and West, modern times and ancient. Most striking is the long portion set in Istanbul, which was Constantinople, which was Derâliye, which was Byzantium.
In three narrative layers, the narrator, her historian father, and his adviser track down Dracula’s tomb in 1972, 1954, and 1930. Unfortunately, there’s no tonal difference in the three layers, so it’s a bit of a nuisance to keep track of the storylines. The two most interesting characters (Dracula and the narrator’s mother) are strangely absent.
The quest takes our scholars from library to library, colleague to colleague, while chased by vampires, doom, and eerie coincidences. This book will only appeal to those who know the excitement of following a research topic as it materializes, strays in unexpected directions, and suddenly leaps into focus. For those readers, The Historian is a rich tapestry of history — written history, living history, personal history. Everyone else will be frustrated and confused.