I was perusing the shelves at home at the weekend and came across The Historian (Sphere) by Elizabeth Kostova, which I suddenly had to read again. I think it was because of reading that Austro Hungarian/Holy Roman empire history Danubia by Simon Winder, in which Vlad III, ” the Impaler”, is very active in Wallachia (Romania) defending his land against the Ottomans. My mind was full of mysterious mountain fastnesses, dusty archives and bloodthirsty and desperate deeds…
The Historian came out in 2005 (long before Twilight hit) and was one of those books: wildly popular but also critically lauded, obscure and fascinating yet well written. Yes, there are a couple of vampires but not the yearning-looks-across-a-room-kind with sparkly skin – they are important but are only part of the tale which, melds fact and fantasy, history and the present. This is sophisticated storytelling that draws deeply on Kostova’s Eastern European heritage.
This compelling story of a young woman (never named) who discovers a book in her father’s library – very old, with heavy blank pages except for the woodcut of a dark dragon in the middle pages, emblazoned with the word DRAKULYA – and a set of sad and terror-tinged letters, is tremendously satisfying: full-on gothic (but not silly) Eastern European touches mixed with an ingenious plot and a shifting sense of reality work here – I don’t think I’ve read anything else quite like it.
Intrigued and repelled in equal measure, our heroine sets off to uncover the secrets kept by her father, her mother and a string of historians, librarians and archivists who have been chasing after the history and meaning of the dragon-imprinted books for decades. You quickly realise that it might be safer for them not to discover just what character from the dark corners of history is lurking behind the pages, but you want to find out what happens next, so you keep reading – just like the characters.
Along the way you get a glimpse of how archives, libraries and researchers work (a bit like you do with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), how history is preserved or lost, the splendors and cruelties of the Ottoman Empire, life in 1950’s communist Hungary and Bulgaria, the beauties of the mountains and vales, villages, castles and monasteries of Romania and the Balkans, and the lively, history-layered city of Istanbul.
The plotting is excellent, the writing is good, you learn lots of archaic vampire lore and middle European history (a bit more than you want about the nastiness of Vlad) and it is all wrapped up in a frisson-inducing tale of literary mystery that surprises and intrigues.