The legend of Dracula is one of the world's most enduring, spanning over 500 years since the death of the fearsome Romanian prince who inspired it, Vlad the Impaler. Thus it seems only fitting that any literary endeavor attempting to take on a historical and mythical figure of this magnitude should require time, patience and fortitude. Fortunately, debut novelist Elizabeth Kostova didn't shy away from the challenge, investing 10 long years of writing and research into what has become one of the most anticipated novels of the year, The Historian.
Kostova's keen interest in the subject stems from a childhood of being entertained by her father's stories of Bram Stoker's Dracula. From these early fictional seeds, her fertile imagination took flight, eventually percolating into an epic and unforgettable story of such breathtaking scope that it seems to belie classification as a debut novel.
Arcing back and forth between the 1970s and the 1950s, The Historian follows a motherless young girl's quest to learn the truth about her father's secret past and his search through Cold War-era Eastern Europe for the murderous fiend that has cost him so much—Dracula. The two journeys eventually become one as the story traces the monster's footsteps from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the mist-shrouded mountains of Transylvania and finally to a medieval monastery that yields a shocking truth. Going back in time to the Middle Ages, the novel peels back centuries of history and myth, threading together a chilling hypothetical portrayal of Dracula's lingering bloodthirsty presence into modern times.
It is this stunning fictional premise, made all the more plausible by the novel's rich historical context and use of epistolary narrative devices and archival documents, that makes The Historian so viscerally alluring. Ambitiously transcending genres, it succeeds equally as a terrifying gothic thriller, enlightening historical novel and haunting love story. Though the shifts between the two main storylines are occasionally awkward, Kostova's masterful and atmospheric storytelling yields a bewitching and paradoxical tale that would satiate even the prince of darkness himself.
Behind a blockbuster
Among the many debut novels published each year, only a small percentage are granted generous advances, film rights sales and the full force of a publishing house's publicity machine. In 1997, the debut novel that drew the world's attention was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. This year, the smash hit in the first-novel category is unarguably Elizabeth Kostova's vampire novel The Historian, which has more than 800,000 copies in print. Ten years in the making, the novel follows a young girl who takes up her father's quest to find the real Dracula. Kostova was inspired both by her own father's vampire stories, and by her experiences living and traveling in Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain fell. On one such trip to Bulgaria in 1989, she met her future husband, Georgi Kostov, who later emigrated to the U.S. Told partially through letters and punctuated by digressions on European history and vampire lore, Kostova's novel might not have looked like a sure bet. However, when the book was published in mid-June, first-day sales topped those of another surprise blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, and it hasn't left the bestseller lists since. The leisurely pace and literary style of The Historian are quite different from the hectic speed of Dan Brown's novel, but both books blend fact and fiction in interesting ways and both keep readers eagerly turning the pages. Kostova has said that her next novel will be vampire-free, though it still deals with her first love, history. Whatever the subject, her phenomenal success guarantees that the book will resemble its predecessor in at least one respect: sales figures.