A friend of mine has been writing a vampire novel set in the Balkans. When I first became aware of The Historian, I expressed a friendly concern to him that his book might suffer from being in its shadow. My friend snorted derisively that his book was much better, so he wasn't going to let it worry him. Having now read The Historian, he was right; his book is much better. I'm glad to say he now has a publishing contract, but I will leave you in suspense about it until it is actually on the shelves.
Unlike The Da Vinci Code, with which it has sometimes been compared, The Historian is not a bad book. The basic plot concerns a series of twentieth and twenty-first century researchers getting caught up with the legacy of Vlad Ţepeş, alias Count Vlad III of Wallachia, alias Dracula, who turns out to be still around in undead form. The scenery features Slovenia, Croatia, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria (with a peculiar climax in France), and people who know little or nothing about the Balkans will probably be intrigued enough to find out more about the region; and that's not a bad thing. The nested narratives and understated romances are rather sweet, and will appeal to the sentimental reader who wants to be made to feel they now understand a bit more about history. But there were three things that really annoyed me about it.
1) The nested narratives just don't work. At one point we have the unnamed narrator reading her father's account of listening to Dr Stoichev translating his joint edition with Professor Angelov of Zacharias of Zographou's note of the dying words of Stefan of Snagov. Yet all of these people sound remarkably similar. In addition, the jumps between different levels of narrative get rather abrupt in the second half of the book, as if Kostova had given up on smooth transitions between them. It is a striking contrast with, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, surely a model of how this sort of thing can be done well. Not very surprisingly, the climax, where most of the narrative lines combine, is confused and ineffective.
2) The Balkanology. Probably few will be as irritated as I was about this, but really, why disguise Ljubljana as "Emona"? Are readers so thick that they can't cope with the spelling? And after many pages of insisting on "Ţepeş", and on the Hungarian and Turkish diacriticals, why then spell Târgovişte incorrectly? Rather more seriously, the Getzi family of the narrator's grandmother are presented as being Romanian speakers, when clearly they would much more likely have been Magyars trapped the wrong side of the border by the Treaty of Trianon. (The Wikipedia entry for the book points out other anachronisms.)
3) As so often, I was utterly unconvinced by the means and motivation of the villain. All this carry-on with scholars across the decades and the continents, and it turns out that Dracula just wanted to hire a librarian? There are easier ways of doing it. (At least so I understand.)
Anyway, I'm glad that's over.