The bulk of The Historian details Paul and Helen's journeys as they negotiate the treacherous ins and outs of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, beginning their quest in Istanbul before slipping into Hungary and then Bulgaria. They follow their sinuous route from faint clue to fainter clue as they hunt for the resting place of a madman; a madman who still maintains an evil semblance of life five hundred years from his birth. They do this because somehow they know that this is where they will find the missing Rossi.
Kostova weaves the long tale of their quest with a careful eye to history and geography, dipping not only into the medieval history of this region but into more modern history; both pre-WWII Romania and Cold War Hungary. Unlike the hit-and-run technique practiced by Brown in Da Vinci Code - generally as a means for creating his "puzzling" moments - Kostova's historical lessons are carefully integrated into the text. You will not leave this novel without learning something of the Ottoman Empire, or of the history of the Orthodox Church. It's not only entertaining, it's educational as well.
Stylistically, Kostova has adopted literary conventions of Victorian novels. A lesser convention is her continual coyness about names and places - we never learn the young narrator's first or last name, for instance; nor is the prestigious university from which her father received his doctorate named at any juncture. Her main stylistic choice is telling her tale through the device of a series of letters. She does so several times; twice in Rossi's letters and once in a set of postcards. The bulk of the volume, though, recounts the series of letters written by Paul to his daughter. These letters chronicle his 1954 journeys in search of Dracula's tomb with the woman who later became his wife and the young girl's mother. Willing suspension of disbelief intrudes but briefly here - the pile of handwritten letters sufficient for this narrative would fill at least one file cabinet... but who cares?
I feel Kostova has succeeded where Bondurant and Geagley did not: she has created a novel that can sweep a reader along much as does Da Vinci Code. It will not, however, enjoy the same wild popularity as Brown's book, for it will not be denounced from pulpits across the land (thereby ensuring that the congregation will read it). Likewise, the tale does not progress at the same ridiculously breakneck speed as Brown's narrative, preferring instead to travel at a more leisurely pace within the reach of mere mortals.
In short, The Historian is everything The da Vinci Code ought to have been: it's literary, it's deeply and carefully researched, it imparts arcane knowledge to the reader, it builds a tale so complex that it is almost blinding and yet so simple that it could be summed up in a few sentences. It's a wonderful read, but try it for yourself! Pick up a copy! Another book I need to recommend -- very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition" by Richard Perez, a much lighter, oddly entertaining little novel I can't stop thinking about.
Also recommended: A LONG WAY DOWN by Nick Hornby, THE LOSERS CLUB: Complete Restored Edition by Richard Perez