Leah’s Review of “Vita Nostra” by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

By: Leah

Originally posted on Leah’s Books.

Vita Nostra

  • Author: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publication Date: November 1, 2018
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Series: Metamorphosis #1

CONTENT WARNING: vomit, ableist language, blood, body horror

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot Summary

The definitive English-language translation of the internationally bestselling Russian novel—a brilliant dark fantasy combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way.

Our life is brief …

While vacationing at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with an air of the sinister directs her to perform a task with potentially scandalous consequences. He rewards her effort with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts of which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or school, she also feels it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons are obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them directly for their transgressions and failures; instead their families pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time—experiences which are like nothing she has ever dreamed of … and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction—brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey—is reminiscent of modern classic such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Max Barry’s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.

Overall Impression

This book popped up on my radar a while ago, and I was definitely intrigued and added it to my TBR. But I did one of those 12 for 2022 suggestions, and we all have people in our lives who consistently recommend amazing books. This book was added to the challenge courtesy of my friend @ AquaVenatus, which I’m super grateful for because this book was absolutely amazing.

While I flew through this book for the simple reason that I couldn’t stop reading it, I’m hard-pressed to write one of my usual reviews for this story. Why? Well, it’s very hard to describe this book. While I classified it as fantasy, it’s also got elements of science fiction, with themes of coming of age, family, and relationships, but overall it’s more of a metaphysical book. But at it’s basis, it’s dark academia pushed to the very limit. The translator (@yuliamh) describes it as being “about the process of learning. It asks how far can and should a person be pushed in order to reach their full potential—what is the price of knowledge? It is also about responsibility, about family, about parents and children. And it’s about language.” And this description describes the book perfectly, but also explains practically nothing.

In the beginning of the story, we meet Sasha Samokhina, a 16 year old girl who lives with her single mother. She’s a dedicated and devoted to her schooling and her mother, so when she encounters a compelling man, she isn’t able to refuse his strange request. And quickly, she discovers that if she doesn’t comply with the request, there are consequences to be paid. Not directed at her, but at her mother. She continues performing his tasks, eventually earning enough of the strange gold coins to enroll in a school in the middle of nowhere, that no one has seemed to hear about. 

With limited options, she decides to attend the school. But it is nothing like what she expected. Her professors give her strange textbooks and exercises to practice, but none of the students are told why or what will happen. They can see something off about the second-year students — they seem to be especially strange, often limping or getting lost in thought and completely zoning out in the middle of a conversation or task. But now that they’ve accepted the admission, there’s no way out.

As Sasha progresses in her studies, she undergoes a profound change, emotionally, mentally, and physically. The story was strongly reminiscent of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and I found myself constantly intrigued to find out what was going to happen next and what would ultimately happen to these students. Sasha and her classmates are all so very different, and undergo struggles in their own way, but learn how to also come together at certain times, although their journeys are completely unique.

Over the course of her schooling, she begins to both distance from emotions and get in touch with some of them. While under constant fear for both their families and their lives, these students are pushed to breaking point in an attempt to help them each reach their full potential. And it isn’t hard to consider the ethical matters involved in this school, but it’s confusing because we don’t know exactly what they are striving towards for much of the book.

“‘To live is to be vulnerable. To love is to fear. And the one who is not afraid—that person is calm like a boa constrictor and cannot love.’”

Adding to the strange and unique nature of this book, it isn’t broken up into any chapters. It’s divided into three parts, one for each of Sasha’s years of schooling at the Institute. But while I’d normally be frustrated by this, the pace is consistently fast and I found myself reading faster and faster to find out what would happen next, as well las what the ultimate goal of all this schooling is. 

There are two more books in this series that have not yet been translated into English, but hopefully will soon. I’m so ready to read the next one! I loved how this was written, and the way that the story is told, as well as so many of the characters. We see Sasha grow and change, as do her relationships with her peers, both the ones she gets along with and the ones she doesn’t. And although I feel like I haven’t done a very good job of explaining this book, it also feels like one of those books you just have to read for yourself to understand.

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