Elizabeth Kostova is one of the most talented writers to debut in recent years. Unlike some authors that banked on their fantasies and sexual repressions to lord it over the young adult bookshelves, Kostova manages to create a world stalked by a vampire that is hauntingly real. (And yes, I did lose sleep for several nights.)
Kostova’s first novel, “The Historian,” was one of my best finds and reads last year. It tells of the search for the remains of Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, and the unfolding of family secrets through a series of travels, letters, and journals.
Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) was a 15th century prince of Wallachia in Romania, and his moniker was derived from the practice of impalement. The book tells of his history, his dealings with and conquests of the Ottomans and the boyars he despised. It is a story with much violence, yet it is one that draws the reader in, to be transported into regions that have been shrouded with much mystery, much as there have been geographical and political barriers to these areas.
The story ranks high on the scale of magnanimity, breadth, and depth, as it transports the reader throughout Western Europe (the townhouses of Amsterdam, Oxford University in England, and the French countryside), Eastern Europe (the quaint towns of Romania, the monasteries of Bulgaria, the ancient ruins in Greece), and richness of Istanbul, Turkey.
As the title of the book connotes, there is much history to be uncovered in the libraries of these places, coupled with a few gruesome figures and some nasty vampire bites. This is one book I would recommend for anyone interested in a bit of medieval history, the macabre, and some scholarly adventure.
Unlike “The Historian”, however, Kostova’s second novel, “The Swan Thieves”, did not grip me as much. What it did have, however, was Kostova’s eye for detail when it comes to her characters’ occupations and preoccupations.
The second novel deals with art and a secret among French Impressionist painters, which sets the stage for a talented but troubled artist to attack a painting called “Leda,” leading him to be admitted to a psychiatric facility. With the artist refusing to talk, it is now up to his psychiatrist to uncover explanations for such behavior.
The novel is told with multiple narratives, exploring the falling out of a married couple, an affair with a younger woman, and an exchange of letters from two artists in late 19th century France. Somewhere a little past the middle of the book, I figured out the big secret, and it came as neither surprise nor delight to me when I was proven right.
Oddly enough, “The Swan Thieves” reminded me of another one of my favorites, A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” minus the climax and what made it worth sifting through correspondences of characters long gone. “The Swan Thieves”, when compared to “The Historian”, has a relatively simple premise, and I’m beginning to think it did not need about 600 pages and over 100 chapters before it got into the meat of the story.
I must admit that reading “The Swan Thieves” was a struggle for me, having to wade through much of the domestic drama to explain a pained artist’s obsessions. It was a struggle to the point that I left my copy of the book somewhere, and it didn’t bother me much (obviously, I was able to retrieve it shortly thereafter).
Time to read another action-packed novel.