This is not one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read. Elizabeth Kostova has issues with voice and character and distinguishing one from the other. Everyone sounds the same, from the barely-eighteen nameless narrator to her father to her father’s old professor, all the way to Vlad Tepes himself. (Yes, that Vlad. We’ll get to that in a bit.) This book is also really long. I mean, really really long, especially for a debut novel.
Still, it’s one of those books I would recommend to anyone who has a love for medieval history, travel across Eastern Europe, towering dusty libraries where you can taste the centuries in the air, and the smell of old, yellowing books.
And vampires. The real ones. The original one, in fact, not the kind that sparkle, watch you as you sleep, and for some godforsaken reason, still go to high school.
I don’t want to go too much into the plot, but it starts with a book. The narrator, who remains unnamed, finds a curious old book in her father’s library marked with an eerie symbol which she recognizes as the Order of the Dragon. Inside it are a bunch of letters addressed to ‘my dear and unfortunate successor’. Discovering these thrusts her in between the folds of history, where her father’s secrets and the truth of her disappeared mother rise to the present. When her father vanishes, leaving behind a set of letters revealing his past, the narrator follows the trail, back and forth through time, while evading the evil that dogs her footsteps, the same evil that pursued her parents years ago. And she must find them before it is too late.
Summaries are clearly not my strong suit.
This is a book of historical fiction, and the history part of it is fascinating. Vlad Tepes, or Vlad Drakulya (meaning ‘son of Dracul’ after his father, Vlad Dracul, which was later simplified by Mr. Bram Stoker), was the three times voivode of Wallachia in the 15th Century. (Wallachia is an area in Romania, south of the Carpathians, close to Transylvania, where Stoker’s Count Dracula is from.) The Historian traces his life from the time he was held hostage alongside his brother, Radu, by Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottomans in 1442. From there, we see his invasion of Wallachia after his father and eldest brother were murdered, and his kingdom was taken by John Hunyadi of Hungary. From there, it is purge after plunder after conquest, featuring his famous mass impalements, his defiance of the Ottomans (and breaking of his vassalhood; is that a word?), and his open massacres in Ottoman territory until Târgovişte. This goes on until his death in battle, where the Ottomans ordered that his body be cut up and the head be taken to Istanbul to present before Mehmed II.
Now this is where it gets interesting.
After his death, Vlad’s body was taken to Bulgaria by a group of monks, where he was supposedly buried in the Monastery of Snagov, a bit north of Bucharest. Excavations done later have revealed no body, only the bones of dead horses. There are theories that he might be located on the grounds of the Comana Monastery in Romania, but what if he wasn’t? What if his body was never found because there is no body to be found? His head was also gone, but what if it was retrieved, perhaps even put back together with the rest of him? What if Vlad Drakulya lived after his supposed death and walked the earth as something different, something not human?
I suppose that’s what might have run through the mind of Mr. Bram Stoker as he spun the tale of his immortal Count.
A few fun facts:
- The green dragon being strangled by its own tail that forms the circumference for this piece is the symbol for the Order of the Dragon (with creative liberties taken). This was an order formed in the early 15th Century and composed of selected nobles charged with defending against the enemies of Christianity, which was at the time, the Ottomans. Sort of based off the Crusades. It has been speculated that this could also be a source of the name ‘Drakulya’ for Vlad III, but it’s most likely because of his father.
- Vlad’s got a bit of the Hapsburg lip in here and though he does have it in his Ambras Castle portrait, that is one genetic defect he may not have had.
- The only characters who are physically described in this book are Vlad, Helen Rossi, and Turgut Bora, whom I have not painted here. I’ve speculated to an extent with Paul and Bartholomew Rossi based on a few stray mentions and the time periods the story was set in. The narrator is my own design for the most part.
- Helen’s face and clothing are clearly described in the book (hard, proud, almost mannish features, short dark hair, and stiff black suit). I’ve drawn her and Paul according to the flashback letters from when they were young and searching for Bartholomew Rossi, while being chased by Dracula. This presumably took place in the late 60s at the height of the Cold War (Helen mentions issues with traveling across the Iron Curtain and Paul runs risks in Bulgaria by being American.), so I looked a bit into casual scholarly fashions of the day for Paul.
- The locations in the background (from left to right) are the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the monastery of Sveti Georgi in Bulgaria (fictional, so I’ve loosely based this one off the monastery in Rila), and the Abbey of St. Mathieu-des-Pyrenees-Orientales (also fictional; this is based off St. Martin du Canigou).
- I’ll admit it. Half the reason I took on this story was so that I could write all that history above as well as write the title in that font.