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Community Oracle's Cult of the Literati

Let's Not Go to Wallachia, it is a Silly Place...

The Historian
By Elizabeth Kostova

Welcome back, Minions of the Literati! This review is a bit late, I realize, but that is because The Historian is REALLY FARKING LONG!!! It is a beautiful book, an artfully told story, but coming in just shy of 700 pages, it's not something you can just read over the weekend. You'll need several weekends, some lunch-hours, and at least a few nights under the covers with a flashlight to get through this one. Nothing against long books here, I'm just sayin' you'll need to budget some time.

On to the good stuff! I liked this book a lot. A lot, a lot. The Historian is a story told in several layers, but basically it's about a group of scholars in the twentieth century who go looking for Dracula. That's right, it's a vampire book. I know what you're thinking, and in fact I almost passed this book up because I'd been subjected, involuntarily, to so much Twilight-o-mania that I didn't want anything to do with vampires until it had all died down, but I was assured that there are no angsty teenagers (there is one teenager, but she is very rarely angsty) and no sparkling anywhere in the story. In fact, the vampires in this book are elusive, the stuff of legends, and only appear in a handful of scenes. By the end of the book, you're aching for some blood-sucking action.

The meat of the story concerns a young scholar, Paul, who is mired in his studies, trying to write a dissertation on Dutch Merchants, when he discovers a mysterious book that has been left on his desk while he was away. The book is blank but for one picture in the middle: a huge, page-spanning dragon with splayed wings, under which the word Drakulya is printed. Spooky! Paul shows the book to his advisor, Professor Rossi, who reveals that he, too, received a similar book in his youth. Since then, Rossi had made a hobby of his search for Vlad Dracula (or Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, the Dragon...he's a man of many names). Not long after this conversation, where Rossi gives Paul a stack of his notes on the subject, Rossi disappears from his office under very mysterious circumstances. Paul is convinced that Rossi's disappearance is connected to his research on Dracula, so he decides to take up the study and the search himself to find his beloved advisor. Oh, and it should also be mentioned that Paul hooks up with Rossi's long-lost daughter, Helen (also a scholar), who insists on helping with the search, as well. Together, Paul and Helen follow Rossi's studies through Istanbul, Hungary, Bulgaria, and eventually to France, searching to find out Rossi's fate and for the final resting place of Ol' Dracky (too casual? Maybe...).

This story is fascinating from a historical standpoint. Medieval European history is not exactly my area of expertise, so it was a bit of an education for me as well. The battle between the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, as well as the depiction of Dracula not as the cape-wearing, pointy-toothed guy we're familiar with, but as a man and a leader, all makes for a ripping-good read. There is also some tasteful romatic bits, which deftly tie the reader to the story emotionally (unless you're dead inside). However, it does lack siginificantly in the action department. No explosions, no sword fights, and surprisingly little blood exists in this book. However, what the book may lack in the boom-thwack-pow department is more than compensated by the mood of the book. It's a tense journey, fraught with danger, not only from the supernatural being that the characters seek, but also because the political climate in Eastern Europe around the 1950's was not exactly "tourist friendly" (silly Communists, always making things difficult). I felt like every time I picked up the book my shoulders would raise and my toes would curl, and I had a hard time reading it for prolonged periods. Usually I have no problem getting lost in books, but this one only allowed for short forays rather than long treks, with frequent real-world breaks.

I only have two complaints about this book, and that is because no fangirl or boy can feel complete without the ubiquitous QQ. Firstly, I have made the acquaintance of several grad students, and I know the kind of budget they work on (living off of cereal and ramen, essentially). Now, all talk of inflation and tourism aside, I cannot figure out how Paul and Helen were able to fly from America and take a three-week tour through Europe. The book is conveniently vague on those details, and that really bugged me. I suppose they could have had trust-funds or other accounts to draw on, but that was a plot hole that I had a hard time ignoring. Secondly, I wanted more Dracula! I mentioned earlier that there was hardly a vampire to be had in the whole book, and while that helps build the tension and make it all the more dramatic when the vampires finally DO show up... well I wanted more. Such pains are taken to paint a picture of Dracula, it just seemed a shame to waste it all on just a few pages.

So, yes. Vampires. Indeed. Read this book if you like history and talk of pilgrimages and monks and architecture and books. Don't read this book if you want sparkles, angst, or gore. Simple as that.

Tired of the same old fantasy and sci-fi books? Care to keep up with the Oracle in her quest for wordy-goodness? Follow along so we'll have something to talk about! Here's what we have on deck for next time:
Fool: A Novel by Christopher Moore

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Oracle's Cult of the Literati

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