Fearful Symmetries

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27 March, 2013

Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living In: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova



I was about half way through Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian before I started making comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. And this wasn't a good thing.

The story begins in 1972 with our nameless 16-year old narrator briefly introducing herself to us. Her mother died when she was very young and her father Paul, a former historian, now works for what I presume is an NGO called the Center for Peace and Democracy that he founded. One day the girl is looking through her father's extensive library when she comes across a very old book with a woodcut print of a dragon on the cover that held in its claws a banner which read "DRAKULYA". It is stuffed with papers and letters, the first of which includes the mysterious greeting, "My dear and unfortunate successor".

Slowly she begins to tease the story behind the eldritch tome from her father. It turned up one evening when he was a graduate student studying in a university library. Intrigued, he approaches his mentor Professor Bartholomew Rossi for help only to have Rossi reveal that he too had received a book just like it under very similar circumstances. Rossi spent a not inconsiderable amount of time tracing the origins of the book and became obsessed with the historical figure who became of the basis of Dracula, Vlad Ţepeş, a.k.a. – Vlad the Impaler, the 14th century Wallachian prince. Not long after this, Rossi disappears, his office stained with blood.

Our narrator proceeds to tell us of Paul's adventure in seeking out his mentor. He meets a beautiful young woman named Helen Rossi who not only has a keen interest in Dracula, but is also the professor's estranged daughter. Together they scour Eastern Europe piecing together the life and death of Vlad Ţepeş as they find clues pointing to Rossi's whereabouts and this is where The Historian begins to feel like The Da Vinci Code.

Thinking that Rossi was kidnapped and taken to Vlad's tomb, the pair begin by going to Istanbul to search the archives of the sultan who ruled during the prince's day. There they meet Turgut Bora, a professor who is knowledgeable about the archives and Vlad as well as just all-around helpful. Then it's off to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The first two unsurprisingly are home to professors who provide more info what Helen's mother lives in Romania and her folks tales about Dracula add even more helpful information to the mix.

This pattern of heading to another location and always finding someone who has the contacts and just the right information Paul and Helen need to take the next step in their investigation got tiresome. Someone can always ensure that two Americans can travel around behind the Iron Curtain unimpeded and someone always has just the right tidbit of legend, lore, or history to get our heroes moving again to another destination and goes on great, long discourses about it. This approach seemed all so cookie cutter.

On the other hand, Kostova has woven a good yarn. The mystery is intriguing. What happened to Vlad's body? What is up with these people being attacked and having their necks bitten? The story also includes a lot of history and detail here which help keep the book interesting even when in Dan Brown mode. (I assume that the history is largely accurate.) Paul and Helen discover a letter describing a trek made by monks with a mysterious cargo just after Vlad's death. Could they have been transporting his corpse? Even an academic paper on this subject is reproduced in full here.

Kostova can build some good dramatic tension but, unfortunately, certain elements get lost in the exposition. For instance, the threat of what we assume is a vampire on the loose going around sucking blood is used to chilling effect but then the menace disappears because Paul and Helen have to catch a train for Hungary.

The Historian has a fine mystery at its core but it gets bogged down in the repetition of the characters going from one place to another and having felicitous meetings with history professors who lecture the reader. This would have been more acceptable in a book of 900+ pages had Kostova liberally sprinkled some distractions but they are far and few between here with Paul and Helen's growing mutual affections being the only one applied consistently.

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|| Palmer, 2:58 PM

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