NB: This book was not marketed as fantasy. But it has vampires in it. In my opinion (and let’s hope I’m right!), that means it’s fantasy. Hence, the review.
What do you get when you cross Bram Stoker’s Dracula with A. S. Byatt’s Possession? You get The Historian, a book about a pair of obsessed academics who are frantically following clues in old manuscripts to discover…vampires. Yep. An academic thriller! A horror novel about research! (Okay, so maybe that’s not so odd after all.) In this book — told through several different first-person narratives, including a lot of letters and journals — the action takes place in ancient libraries, and the characters rush from one medieval manuscript to another, doing their best to stay one step ahead of the blood-sucking fiends. No, I’m not kidding.
The weirdest thing about this book is that it actually works. At least, for the most part. It is an academic approach to the Dracula legend — the characters are trying to solve the mystery surrounding Dracula’s tomb (a real-life mystery, by the way — it really is empty) and, of course, avoid being preyed upon by the vampires themselves. It is also a beautifully atmospheric depiction of locations all across Europe; I can only assume that Kostova has actually visited the places she describes, since she brings each and every one alive in her characters’ narration. In the process, Kostova investigates the historical person who became the legend Dracula — Vlad III of Wallachia, the Impaler — and explores his complex status in Romanian folklore: he is considered a hero there because of his dedicated opposition to the Ottoman invasions, in spite of his horrifying cruelty (and, eventually, supposed status as a vampire). She also gives some attention to Communism in eastern Europe, since the majority of the book is set during the Cold War. The book itself displays a very balanced attitude toward the medieval Muslim-Christian wars and east-west relations in general; I felt no partiality on the author’s part, which made the portrayal all the more interesting.
I confess that I have a weakness for original takes on the vampire legend (i.e. not bodice-rippers), and this book is nothing if not original, so I highly enjoyed that aspect of it. (And, believe it or not, it does achieve real creepiness here and there. Vampires are scary, even when they’re librarians.) I did feel that a couple of key plot elements were rather weak in explanation — the conclusion was a bit of a let-down. Also, the book could probably have been about 25 percent shorter than it actually is (a hefty 600+ pages). However, that’s true of Dracula too, and Kostova’s writing in general is of quite high quality, so I forgave the over-length and even the borderline cheesy plot explanations. (I would have thought that I was pretty much the only person on the planet who would love a book about university academics researching Dracula, except that this book spent weeks on the bestsellers list last year. So I guess not.)
Morally, this book has some of the same issues that Dracula does. Kostova takes what Stoker has made the traditional approach to vampirism: it’s contagious, you become one after being attacked several times, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid being contaminated and therefore turning evil. However, unlike in Stoker’s book, where the characters were (supposedly) Christians, here, they’re all confirmed skeptics in spiritual matters. Of course, they have a hard time reconciling this with what they witness of vampirism — the vampires are obviously demonic, and they respect traditional symbols of Christianity such as the crucifix even when the main characters don’t. I have a hard time deciding which portrayal is more problematic, but I lean toward Stoker’s, because there, he actively implies that the vampires are more powerful than God. In Kostova’s book, God does not come into play — which is a moral problem when spiritual matters are at the forefront, of course, but at least she’s not stating directly that the demonic is more powerful than the divine. However, characters are still left without any choice in the matter of becoming demonic. Therefore, similarly to Stoker’s novel, there are scenes in which characters have to ‘stake’ people they care about. This is, of course, disturbing. In general, though, there is less blood than you might expect from a book about vampires, and also no innuendo as to vampirism being linked to sexuality.