Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hmmm...Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian"

On Saturday, was finally able to put Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" away on the bookshelf. Still not sure what I think of it, really. The 642-page novel is a tad over-rated (it's going to save the book industry!), but there are definitely some good parts.

Predictably -- after all the pre-release hype comparing it a great deal to Dan Brown's awful "The Da Vinci Code" -- it's #1 on this week's New York Times bestseller list. It focuses on an unnamed 16-year-old's quest to find Dracula after discovering a woodcut book in her father's library, which bears a sinister-looking dragon and map in the middle -- as well as the word "Drakulya." Beyond this, it's blank. A letter inside further piques her curiosity, addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor." From there the book becomes a travelogue, mixing the daughter's current quest and her father's earlier search for the still-with-us Dracula. A full description of the book can be found on the site of the book's publisher, Little, Brown.

Publisher's Weekly gushes over it thusly: "Kostova builds suspense by revealing the threads of her story as the narrator discovers them: what she's told, what she reads in old letters and, of course, what she discovers directly when the legendary threat of Dracula looms. Along with all the fascinating historical information, there's also a mounting casualty count, and the big showdown amps up the drama by pulling at the heartstrings at the same time it revels in the gruesome. Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty: it's hard to imagine that readers won't be bitten, too."

There are certainly some good parts, but the novel still has a great deal of flaws for me-- with the largest being the it-threads-it-all-together daughter plot being extremely weak. It would have just been a stronger novel with the father moving to the forefront and re-working everything else around that...all the daughter crap is largely extraneous. I understand what the author is trying to say through all of this, but I don't think it works.

It's not that she really does anything anyway-- she just follows her father's words and is ultimately saved by another. There are some large plot-holes as well and what the novel builds to is not all that mysterious-- the careful reader would be able to guess the endgame by page 200. The ending, as others have said before me, is a bit of a letdown. Not in that the setpiece is awful, it just needed further polish. Nothing "Van Helsing" like, just a better pay-off than what is here.

As Laura Miller of Salon said, for the sophisticated reader, "it's a fine Bordeaux to Dan Brown's overcaffeinated Diet Coke." Sure, it's leagues above Brown's hack-y work...but that's damn faint praise as it is. This could have been far better.

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