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The Historian

December 19, 2006

After receiving several strong recommendations from friends and family, I finally broke down and purchased Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel a few weeks back.

I wish I hadn’t.

I hate to come down against a book that has come so highly recommended, but I can’t help it.  The Historian not only left me cold, but frustrated as well.

I won’t get into the plot here.  You can head to the Amazon page linked above if you want specifics.  For the purposes of this post, you need only know that the novel is something of a literary thriller that has to do with a certain 15th-century Carpathian noble known as Vlad Tepes – a.k.a. Dracula.

Sounds interesting, right?  Fascinating, even?  I mean, come on, a thriller about Dracula.  Well, the term "thriller" is obviously being employed loosely these days, as what followed was six hundred and more pages of travelogue interspersed with a dragging story.

Most annoying, however, is Kostova’s employment of a number of very techniques I have labored (and likely failed) to avoid in my own writings, such as…

Over-Description – The taking of a page or more to describe the appearance of a person, building, landscape, et cetera.  Yes, some description is necessary, but I’ve always preferred a sparser style that relies on the reader’s imagination to complete the image.  Granted, Kostova is nowhere near the offender that, say, Colleen McCullough is (I mean really, who needs a three page description of how to don a toga?), but her penchant toward over-description is nevertheless noticeable.

Amazing Connections – A succession of chance meetings which blow right past the bounds of credulity.  The number and sheer implausibility of the fortuitous encounters in Kostova’s novel manage to put even Dan Brown to shame.  An example – traveling to Istanbul on the trail of a missing professor who may or may not have been abducted by Dracula, only to end up dining beside and striking up a conversation with a Turkish professor whose side hobby happens to be – get this – all things Dracula.  I hesitate to say all, but many of the novel’s developments rely upon amazing and highly improbable connections such as these.

Info-Dumps – Long, drawn-out conversations used to deliver background information.  While I am prepared to accept these as necessary in novels such as this, there is no need for them to be so repetitive, nor so long and drawn-out.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    December 23, 2006 11:56 pm

    I didn’t think The Historian was perfect, but I have to say I thought it was a pretty damn good first novel despite its imperfections — I think you’re being a little hard on it here.

    I’m wondering if part of your reaction is backlash to the hype, especially since this is one of those books that seems destined to end up getting the big Hollywood blockbuster treatment.

    Besides … if you’re going to knock Kostova for the above points, there’s NO WAY you should have EVER gotten past the first Jack Whyte book.

    On one of your points — the amazing connections — I tended to take receive the book very differently. I didn’t think those coincidences were really coincidences at all. The book is told through a series of first person narrators, all of whom are imperfect narrators in that they tell the story through their own filters and perceptions. I didn’t ever think the Turkish professor was being completely honest, for example, and thought it just showed how naive the narrator was as a young man that he believed everything the professor said at face value. Go back and look at some of the descriptions of him, particularly of his study — there are plenty of indications that he is almost as ruthless and manipulative as Vlad himself, and that he engineered their original meeting in the cafe. There are also multiple cues about the naivety of the narrator.

    The subtleties and distortions of each of the imperfect narrators (some through naivety, some through vanity, each one with their flaws) is part of what made the book interesting for me.

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