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Novel offers fresh take on Vlad the Impaler

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The Historian (Little, Brown, 910 pages, $12), a beautiful novel by American author Elizabeth Kostova, takes a well-worn theme -- the legend of Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula -- and makes it fresh, lyrical, altogether magical.

The story is narrated by a teenage girl, whose father (and, before him, his university thesis advisor) was, shall we say, dangerously captivated by the vampire legend.

The book is told through a combination of letters, flashbacks and contemporary narrative. The writing is ornate, but not stodgy, and the story (which involves the narrator's quest to find out how her family history dovetails with the vampire legend) is suspenseful and frightening.

Kostova is an elegant writer, and the book is one of the novels you sink into and don't come up for air again until it's finished.

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In a similar vein, here's Soon I Will Be Invincible (Vintage, 320 pages, $17), by California's Austin Grossman. Like the Pixar movie The Incredibles, this brilliant novel re-imagines the superhero theme, breathes fresh new life into a familiar genre.

Dr. Impossible, a frustrated evil genius, languishes in prison, humiliated because he's penned up with ordinary mortal criminals. Meanwhile, on the side of good, Fatale is a rookie superhero, a cyborg whose special abilities can't protect her from her own desire to be accepted, and to be normal (whatever that is).

When Dr. Impossible escapes from prison, Fatale takes her place on the world-famous crime-fighting team, the Champions, and immediately discovers that her fellow superheroes are just as, well, human as she is.

Grossman's great gift, apart from apparently effortless prose, is his ability to re-cast traditional superhero types as real, human characters, with all of the foibles that come with the territory. The novel is extremely funny, but also poignant and perceptive.

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Ben Elton, the British novelist, screenwriter and comedian, hits another one out of the park with Blind Faith (Black Swan, 368 pages, $20).

In this near-future, post-apocalyptic, black-comic twist on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, religion has gone haywire and the very notion of personal privacy, not to mention modesty, is considered evil.

Trafford, Elton's hero, is, la Orwell's Winston Smith, a subversive, a man who believes in such bygone values as privacy, modesty, and shame.

But he's meek, too, sort of a rebel who's too timid to do anything about it... until he meets a girl who turns his whole life upside-down.

The question is, can Trafford speak his mind, bring sanity and humility to the masses, without getting put to death for heresy?

As always, Elton combines a mind-bending premise, realistic characters and sharp insights into a compelling and hysterical story.

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In The Sleeping Doll (Pocket Books, 580 pages, $13), by Jeffrey Deaver, creator of Lincoln Rhyme, one of the genre's most compelling heroes, introduces us to a new protagonist: Kathryn Dance, agent of the California Bureau of Investigation, an expert in the art of interrogation.

The novel opens with Dance interviewing the notorious Daniel Pell, a Charles Manson-like psychopath who's currently serving time for slaughtering a wealthy family.

But Kathryn soon discovers the interview was merely a ruse, a way for Pell to orchestrate his escape from a maximum-security prison. Now he's on the loose, evidently going after former members of his criminal "family," and only Dance can figure out what he's planning, before it's too late.

Deaver is known for three things -- sharply drawn characters, intricate plots, and out-of-left-field twists -- and here he demonstrates, if there were any lingering doubts, that he is the maestro of the American thriller.

Halifax freelancer David Pitt's column appears the first Sunday of the month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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