Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: The Historian

An elegant and erudite Dracula saga
Despite the title, The Historian is a book about vampires. Dracula, in fact, the big bad granddaddy of vampire mythology.

Oh, there are several historians, as well as other flavors of scholars. And the titular historian is a singularly compelling character. You might change your mind several times about who it is.

But don’t be misled by the subject matter. This is not campy pulp fiction or an urban fantasy romp with spandex and swords. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those!) It is a meticulously crafted, artfully layered, and slooooowly revealed masterpiece. I say this so that, should you feel compelled to seek out this book, you choose a time with minimal distractions when you can properly savor it.

The scope of The Historian is breathtaking. The prose is eloquent and precise. The tale is an ingenious blend of history and fantasy that is relentlessly fascinating.

This book was originally published in 2005 and became a best seller, but I just now got around to realizing what an amazing read it is. So even though I’m about a decade behind its legions of other fans, I couldn’t simply move on to another book without taking a moment to let this story sink in and say a few words about it.

If you’ve let The Historian languish on your TBR list because it looks like a chore, I encourage you to dust it off and give it a try, when the time is right. After the jump, I’ll explain why.



I put off reading this book for 10 years because I kept hearing that it was really long and dragged in the middle. Silly me. Some books are long because they chronicle a complex and multifaceted mystery, centuries in the making and generations in the solving. They are entirely worth the journey.

That said, if you’re not a fan of long, descriptive stories, you might want to wait for a brilliant TV adaptation – it’s hard to believe no one has snapped up this gem yet. But after reading the entire Outlander series multiple times and finishing A Song of Ice and Fire, I no longer felt intimidated by a mere 700 pages!

Dracula, Prince of Wallachia
From the Castle Amras Collection (1621)
The Historian tells a story that began in the late 15th century. Before, actually, but it mentions more ancient roots of vampirism only briefly. In the 1470s, the ferocious warlord Vlad Tepes (Vlad Dracula) used brute force and barbaric punishment to inspire fear and stem the Ottoman invasion of Europe. His raiders hid out in a rugged, mountainous region of Romania known as Wallachia, where it was difficult to track and fight them. He was imprisoned in Constantinople (which had been Byzantium until its recent conquest by the Ottomans), but then returned to Wallachia and eventually was killed in battle and buried in a remote island monastery where he served as patron and protector. Or else in a different out-of-the-way monastery in the wilds of Bulgaria, which was eventually destroyed by the Ottomans and reclaimed by the forests. Or else back in Constantinople.

Or was he? Turns out, secret groups have been guarding or searching for the location of his tomb for 500 years. And someone has been stalking them all from the shadows.

The Historian is set in the 20th century, as a geographically dispersed assortment of academicians painstakingly looks for pieces to a puzzle spanning several decades — and, ultimately, centuries. They are compelled by different reasons – direct blood ties to Dracula, baffling coincidences, inscrutable ciphers and clues, an unshakeable queasiness that something malevolent maintains vigil. But most of them began their search with the mysterious appearance of an ancient book, empty except for an identical woodblock print of a dragon and the word Drakulya. They have been personally selected for a mission, and their first assignment is to figure out exactly what that mission is.

Source

Different characters narrate intertwined tales set in different time periods. Clues lead them around the globe, to vast archives in ancient centers of knowledge and power, to villages sheltered from time where ancient legends are learned as songs around the fires. The author’s vivid and detailed descriptions bring the various locations to life – Oxford, Zagreb, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and the all-important Constantinople and its cultural predecessor Byzantium. They visit ancient monasteries, churches, mosques, and libraries – oh my stars, all the ancient libraries! I feel like I’ve had a guided tour of European antiquities. Now I dream of taking an extended trip through eastern Europe, with about a million years to examine the literary and architectural treasures.

By Tom Murphy VII - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295698

I’m not going to disagree with fans who say the book might be too long. But when prose so polished imparts such a mesmerizing story, I forgive its excesses. Especially when it serves up such a smorgasbord of authentic and absorbing characters and settings. I will never have the opportunity to travel to many of the exotic locations featured in this book, and I appreciate this chance to visit them vicariously through the eyes of these characters.

I must also say that this is the most interesting Dracula I’ve ever met. His story is suspenseful more than scary. He has the measured patience of a chess master and a brilliant, cultured veneer that I could not look away from and might have found myself cheering for occasionally.

The Historian is wordy. (It has lots of good words! All the best words, believe me!) But the magnificent centuries-old mystery those words weave – or unravel – is flat-out riveting.

This Wench rates The Historian:


2 comments:

  1. This is a book I'd heard a lot of buzz about but didn't really know what it was actually about or whether I wanted to read it, but when I saw it at Waldenbooks on sale for $3.99, I figured it was worth that much to give it a try. That was about 8 years ago, and I still haven't gotten around to reading it. But thanks for the review, because at least now I have more than just an inkling of what it's made of!

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    1. That sounds a lot like me! My review was pretty vague about the main narrative and characters, because I didn’t want to spoil anything, but it’s really a great story that jumps around in time as the characters all discover each other and search for clues together. There’s a sense of urgency, because one of them has mysteriously disappeared and they think he might still be alive somewhere and in immortal danger. I hope you find some time to enjoy this loooong book!

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