Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

Here is a case where marketing actually worked on me. An excerpt of the book was sent in the mail with a newsletter, and because it was there, I read it, and was completely suckered in. How could I not be, when it ends on such words "Vlad Tepes is still alive." The fact that it was beautifully written didn't hurt at all, as I've been known to pick up excerpts for the sole purpose of reading out the horrid bits to annoy mum.

This is not a vampire book. It contains vampires, just as some foods may contain nuts, but don't taste like nuts at all. The vampires are a subtle menace, thwarting the protagonists, but not poncing around as stories tend to make vampires do. They remain unreachable, a mystery, and as such work incredibly well.

The protagonists themselves aren't tough, macho vampire hunters, or heros of any description. They're scholars, all of them, and aside from a remarkable intelligence, they're ordinary people, and remain ordinary people. This is, I think, one of the key succeses of the book.

I'm very guilty of pitting my characters against monsters that are unlikely to afflict anyone walking this earth, and I'm also guilty of having those characters become heros. Of being able to cope with it all, not necessarily well, but being able to come out the end in one piece, on top. I'm guilty, in my head, of being a hero. Ordinary people aren't. Ordinary people don't have armies, swords, BFG's, etc at their disposal, and ordinary people don't wound, let alone kill. That Kostova pitted her characters against some of the greatest monsters of time, and had them remain ordinary people, is a marvellous feat. It gives the book a grounding and an air of validity that drew me in much deeper than I would have otherwise gone.

As well as not being a vampire story, it isn't really a family story either. It's more of a travel book than anything else. As various characters travel to various cities in Europe and the Middle-East, each destination is a marvellous treasure that the character falls in love with, and I had no choice but to do so as well. Everything was wonderful, beautiful, a perfect individual day that would never be replicated. Food was magnificent. People were blessed. Everything had a history I can't even begin to imagine. If you're given to itchy feet, as I am, be warned; this book will make them itchier. I rue the current situation of the Middle East, as I now have a strong desire to see Istanbul, among other things. Kostova is incredibly evocative, and all her settings become characters themselves.

But...she gets a bit carried away with the story. To begin with, I don't know that she can cope with anything but first person. There are multiple POVs within, from the daughter, to the father, to the professor, to her mother, to monks who died in centuries ago - and they're all written in first person. This wouldn't be so bad if there were distinct voices between them, but for the most part, there aren't. The same measured, educated and refined voice dominates all, and so for a book that contains several POV characters, it reads as only one character. There were several times when I forgot exactly whose eyes I was reading through, and what year it was.

Then, her supposedly intelligent characters make assumptions that appear to be there for the sole purpose of the writer being able to pull back the curtain and shock them later. I'm not fond of situations in which the reader has information that the character needs, as it makes me impatient with the character and the story, as there's nothing left to reveal. That the characters don't possess this information for no very good reason at all makes it worse.

Ah, and then we come to the miraculous coincidences. There's nothing else to call the meeting of Turgut and James but out of the blue 'oh what luck!' to get the story moving along. Once I can handle, twice is far too often and smacks of laziness.

The reason for Helen's disappearance, and her continued disappearance, didn't work for me at all. At all.

Finally, the book is too long for the story. I don't usually say that, but with 100 pages to go, I was heartily sick and tired of them digging up one supposedly pointless clue after another, jumping from one dusty library to another, which is what they were doing for the majority of the book. It was interesting for the first part, then it got repetative, then boring. I just wanted them to hurry up and find Vlad's tomb, and get it over and done with. I shouldn't come to the end of the book with relief that it is finally over, I should approach it quickly, to know what happens, and sadly, knowing that I'll never be able to read it for the first time ever again.

It is still, however, a beautifully written book, and refreshingly different. It's full of love and mystery, with just the right amount of menace.

Verdict: Well worth the time, just remember about the last few pages.

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