Last December I went to the Southbank Book Market in London. Beneath the Waterloo Bridge, I rummaged through books determined to find a few to take home. Unfortunately I found nothing that particularly struck my interest. Finally, because it was cold and my hands were numb and red, I picked a book which didn’t seem to hold spectacular promise. The Historian.
Some days later, as I packed for the airport, I berated myself for buying such a thick book, as it stubbornly refused to fit into my suitcase. I considered leaving it on the metro.
Once home, the book sat on my bookshelf, and I was disinterested in it until I was set to go on a four day school trip to the South of France, where I’d be spelunking to see prehistoric cave paintings. I brought the book because it was long and would last two lengthy train trips.
So, with the French countryside (which looks a lot like the New Jersey Turnpike) whirring by beyond the train window, I began with little enthusiasm the best book I’ve read since November of 2010.*
I haven’t included the book’s summary in this review because it sounds dull. The back of the book should not describe, as it does, an unnamed girl who finds some letters, but instead mention the book’s depicted libraries, scrolls and tomes, ancient tongues, European travel, dragons, tombs, cathedrals, and dead sultans who still possess secret and devoted armies. Basically, read this.
Kostova writes with ten years of research inside her brain, as well as a wealth of childhood memories of Eastern and Western Europe. She writes a historical novel that delves into the real life of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, also known as Dracula. Her scholarly characters are so firmly anchored in the real, dry world of dissertations and book-based fact that for the reader to accompany them on a voyage of myth and supernatural horror is enthralling. It feels a little forbidden, even, to mix so thoroughly the real and the unreal, the trite and the horrific.
I consumed this book. To convey how engrossing I found it, I’ll tell you that two days ago, when I found myself in London again, in Waterstones Piccadilly, I went to see if Kostova has published any other books.** Unsure of where to find her work, I first searched under ‘Thrillers.’
Actually she is shelved under ‘Historical Fiction.’ Obviously. But this book is thrilling.
This is the most romantic relationship I’ve had with a book in ages. Not only was it a page-turner, but I found it in a lovely book market by a river and read it in a Medieval French village each night, after coming back from a day’s exploring of eerie, ancient caves.
This kind of book, and the picturesque experience I had with it, comes to me once every few years. This is the most deeply-recommended read I’ve reviewed yet on this blog.
*Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
** The Swan Thieves