A most appropriate read for my R.I.P. IV  Challenge and a great one for my and Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge.

Author :  Elizabeth Kostova

Date of First Publication :  June, 2005 (Hardcover)

Publisher of 1st Edition :  Little, Brown and Company

This Edition’s Publication Date :  January 2006 (Paperback)

This Edition’s Publisher : Back Bay Books

ISBN:  0-316-05788-6

No. of pages : 820  (Paperback)

The Story :

A young American girl stumbles upon an unusual book in her father’s library.  Its pages are empty except for a woodcut of a menacing dragon with the title, Drakulya, on it.  Along with it is a stash of old letters written by a her father’s favorite professor, Bartholomew Rossi, who mysteriously disappeared at the time when her father was still his student.

Her discovery reveals her family’s dark and dangerous quest for the continued existence of Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula.  Slowly , drawn by her father’s accounts, she joins her family’s adventure of pursuing the undead through old letters and ancient texts, from libraries , aged monasteries and closed countries of Eastern Europe.

The Review :

You’ve got to be “in love at first read” with Elizabeth Kostova’s lush, vivid, elegant prose.  Her attention to detail is a constant that keeps the ambience of the book flowing, cloaking the reader with gothic creepiness that blends surprisingly well with romantic elements,  all throughout its eight hundred and so pages.  (By romantic elements I mean the sumptuous descriptions which enamor a reader to places, culture, people, etc. )  To read Kostova’s work is  to experience a story so intimately — you “see” the colorful pageantry of Byzantine culture, “taste”  delectable Turkish food, “smell” the smell of the undead, “feel” the anguish of the tortured.

If she fails to capture your interest in her first one or two hundred pages, chances are you simply cannot love this.  It’s one of those books that will either mesmerize you with its sensual vividness and alluring writing or because of these very qualities, tire you with its ponderous pace and lengthy minutiae.

For me, however, it is exactly Kostova’s way with language and her meticulous manner that are the charms of this novel.  It makes me wish I could absorb Kostova’s prose into my very pores in the hopes I would be able to write as eloquently and as gorgeously as she can.  Aside from being able to string words  so marvelously, she can switch the narrative perspective between a number of characters so effortlessly that the reader is hardly left wondering who is telling the story at certain points.

As a gothic novel, The Historian is superb.  It’s got all those dark elements, creepy atmosphere, but tempered so that it just falls short of being a horror novel.  The story moves like a slow crescendo,  building up bit by bit to a startling peak that gently tapers out toward the end. With all that, the reader is treated also to a well-researched history of Dracula, which makes reading all the more interesting.

In A Nutshell :

A horror novel, The Historian is not.  It may raise a few hairs, make your spine tingle, give you little shivers but it stops short of being truly terrifying.  It wasn’t written to be really such.  Yes, a chiller; but one laden with a lot more history and mystery than visceral terror.

This is a thick, page-laden novel .  But length becomes no object when you have totally immersed yourself in it.

Those who take to the novel quite early are more likely to appreciate this gem.  On the whole, it is worth the time.  To echo  a fellow blogger, KyusiReader, The Historian is indeed a very, very satisfying read.

My Mark :  Excellent

Years ago, my sister and I read and enjoyed “Pillars of the Earth” immensely (see review dated Feb. 3, 2009), a wonderful epic by Ken Follet.

World Without End“, its much-touted sequel , was therefore a must-have for me;  so I was so happy when my sister gave me this book for my birthday.

Author :  Ken Follet

Published Date : October 7, 2008

Publisher :  NAL Trade

ISBN-10: 045122499X

ISBN-13: 978-0451224996

No.  of pages :    1, 024

The Story :

It is 200 years after the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral in Pillars of the Earth“.   Fourteenth century England is recovering from the Great Famine, under a new king, Edward III. The Roman Catholic religion has reached its peak of power and influence in medieval life so that the priory of Kingsbridge is now a major political, commercial and social factor in the huge, bustling town. It is against this backdrop that the story begins.

Four children witness a desperate struggle and death in the forest. In their terror, all four make a pact to keep it a secret. Merthin, especially, is entrusted by the surviving knight of the whereabouts of a dangerous letter, the contents of which can mean anyone’s life if he is discovered knowledgeable of it.

These four children grow up to be a nun, a knight, a master builder, and a serf’s wife. The story chronicles the paths of these four characters and how they each figure in each other’s lives, throughout a dark century fraught with the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the absolute control of religion, and the strong power of social and gender hierarchy at that time.

The Review :

The Good :

The book starts out very strongly with the first few chapters in Follet’s descriptive and thrilling writing style that promises this to be another brilliant epic, in the footsteps of Pillars.

One’s interest is piqued by the the author’s indugence in his characters,  pitting them against a gamut of conflicts arising from political maneuvering, medical ignorance, religious mores, male superiority, etc. Most of the time, it was interesting to see how these characters faced the roadblocks life gave and how compromises and choices were made to make one’s way.

This obstacle-compromise technique actually drives the plot and Follet keeps the pace relentlessly,  so that one can’t help but turn page after page to find out what happens—-what will the character do?

The Bad :

Unfortunately, though, Follet overdoes this obstacle-compromise formula, and this is where the book’s downfall begins.

Three-fourths into the book (about 800 plus pages in), the pace still does not let up.  By this time, the reader’s satiety for drama and conflict has been reached.  The cup hath runneth over. Tedium starts to set in.  By now, you may be weary of the constant barrage of situations the characters have to hurdle.   You may even start to wonder whether the author is as weary as well, having to dish out drama after drama.  It begins to feel as if Follet is trying too hard now and the story starts to take on the qualities of a huge soap opera.

Moreover, you may now come to realize that none of the characters have been well developed at all. Pretty much cardboard cut-outs of bad and good figures, they remain the same all throughout. If they are bad, they are thoroughly bad; if good, they are always good. They are entirely predictable and almost devoid of dimensions. This gets pretty annoying, by the way, when you’re way into the book and the characters cease to be endearing or even interesting anymore.

The Ugly :

Finally, towards the last few pages, you may start rolling your eyes at the incredulity of more problems surfacing out of nowhere and needlessly, I may add, so that there isn’t any slack (ex.  Merthin’s daughter Lolla having a huge teen-age tantrum and running away).   You might say, “Huh?…another one? But it’s almost over!”

I’m beginning to think of the inappropriateness of the book’s title, “World Without End.” It should have been “Woes Without End”.

You may also start cringing at how the author chose to resolve some conflicts for the conclusion (ex. Gwenda and Annet – terribly corny; Lolla and Caris – equally cheesy).  Actually, Follet tied up individual story endings with neat fairy-tale bows, that you can’t help but roll your eyes again.

Another thing:  The secret that was supposed to tie the characters together (as per the blurb at the back of the book)  never adequately functions as a bonding agent and is hardly a major factor in the story.  It actually seems like an aside and so loses its impact in the end when the author pulls it out to function as one of his spectacular closures.

What happened to Follet? His endings here are so unlike him. Seems like he himself was fed up with his own great big tome and he just couldn’t care less how he ended it, as long as he ended it.

The worst part of this book is really its conclusion.

To Read or Not To Read? :

Although touted as a sequel,  this story is very independent of  Pillars and can be read on its own.

It’s quite an entertaining page-turner most of the way but it does go downhill drastically a quarter of the way toward the end, which is so frustrating after you’ve spent your time reading more than 800 pages.   However, if you like TV soap or unending drama, then you’ll love this book.  The story is in keeping with major historical facts. Follet’s vivid descriptions bring up the sights, sounds, and smells of the 14th century and in this, he does not disappoint.

However, if you abhor one-dimensional characters or as I have mentioned,  long drawn out dramas, keep away from this novel.   Your money and time will be well spent on something else.

The Bottom Line :

I believe I am in the minority here with my dismal review of this bestseller.  To me, it was a story that began and progressed very well through most of the way, then suddenly fell flat on its face and came up disappointingly mediocre on the last quarter leg toward the finish line.

The sudden downturn in quality left me with a contemptuous feeling for the book and  I walked away sorry that what could have been another great effort of  Follet had gone to waste with thoughtless and tacky plot turns and additions in the last several pages.

I’m rather ambivalent about how I should rate this book.   To have enjoyed it more than half of the way and to dislike it only near its conclusion should prompt me to give this novel a better score.  However, I think I should rate it according to the lingering feeling that it has left me with…and that is disappointment.

My Mark :  Mediocre

Author :  Ken Follet

First Release (Hardcover edition) :  Sept. 7, 1989

Paperback Edition :  1990

Publisher :  New American Library

Pages  :  983

I have read “Pillars of the Earth” a long time ago and have counted this as one of my all-time faves.   An epic masterpiece by Ken Follet, this book  is a total departure from his usual spy and action thrillers.   Instead, this is a hauntingly beautiful historical novel that shows Follet’s skill and maturity in his writing.

Binary Primate does a good review of this novel.  And so does 2nd Monday Dogs.  Please do check them out.

Incidentally, “Pillars of the Earth” has been adapted into a board game!  I learned it from this post by FootNotes.  This book is that good!

My Mark :  Excellent

This month, I’ll be reviewing its sequel “World Without End“.  I hope it’s as good as this one.