In Review: Vita Nostra

This twists and turns between wonders and horrors, taking a reader on a magical, psychological trip.

Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Published by Harper Voyager on November 13, 2018. Hardcover of 410 pages at $26.99. 

The cover: A black background shows a girl with her head turned to the right, away from the reader, as she seemingly is engulfed by water, though the liquid does not go below her shoulders. Weird, odd, and a perfect image for this book that warrants the same adjectives. I like how the title is covered in golden droplets that match the text. A blurb from Lev Grossman is just above the title, while under the text is the image of the young woman. The authors’ names are at the bottom and translator Julia Meitov Hersey’s name is just under theirs. The main image is copyright Josephine Cardin/Trevillion Images and the texture is copyright Black Digital Cat/Shutterstock. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the inside jacket cover, “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 for which she receives more coins from Kozhennkov. 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 are like nothing she has ever dreamed of…and suddenly all she could ever want.” This is not a novel intended for children, yet this is sounding like a twisted, older sort of Harry Potter set in modern Russia. I’m down with that. I haven’t read a Russian novel in over twenty years, so I’m hoping the translation isn’t rough. Overall grade: A-

The characters: Sasha Samokhina is a sixteen year-old girl who loves to learn. So much so that she’s a perfect candidate for the institute. How she gains entrance to the institute was a little off-putting for me. While on vacation with her mother she is required to do something and once back home she is required to do something else. These were extremely odd moments, but once she’s on her way to school Sasha becomes more believable, for I couldn’t fathom why she endured those two repetitive labors. At school she takes courses that most students would, PE, English, History, but she also has to take Specialty, which has some very interesting lessons to learn. The book follows Sasha’s first and second year in school, with her final year, her third, having things change dramatically for her. Sasha was initially difficult able to get a handle on, given all the oddness in her life and no reasons given as to what or why she’s learning special curriculum. However, around Page 100 I had complete buy in and I, like Sasha, wanted to know what was up with the institute. What Sasha learns and becomes is amazing. I was unprepared for it, though it was in front of me the entire time. Sasha’s mother enters the book to remind the reader she has a mother, while her stepfather Valentin complicates things. Both characters are necessary for what Sasha will learn at the institute. Farit Kozhennikov is Sasha’s mysterious recruiter who appears infrequently, often to impart advice or help her to the next stage in her learning. I loved the surprise that’s revealed about him and his relationship with his son. Kostya Kozhennikov is Farit’s son and he meets Sasha before they enter the institute for the first time. They’re fast friends because of this, but will his good looks make him something more? There’s an excellent twist with Kostya. The other important schoolmate is Yegor, who enters the book during Sasha’s second year. He intervenes in an important moment in someone’s life and his relationship with Sasha changes because of it. The two most important teachers are Oleg Borisovich Portnov and Nikolay Vakerievich, the hunchback. Their personalities are completely different with the former a real taskmaster and the latter a, seemingly, lighter touch. They are wonderful creations. I couldn’t get enough of either character. All characters are involved with Sasha’s learning and are highly enjoyable. Overall grade: A

The settings: The Institute of Special Technologies is an old building that requires painting every summer and is definitely not  Hogwarts. Students are three to a room, they hang out of windows or hide in bathrooms to smoke, and every hall is full. When students visit professors they wait in the halls until summoned and receive fifteen minutes of personal instruction for the week, outside the regular lessons of the class. These individual one-on-one meetings are tense not only for what occurs, but what is described of the rooms. The home that Sasha’s mother and stepfather live in gets a little time, but comes across as typical of any family in any city. There are a few other sites visited, but the school is the primary setting. Overall grade: A

The action: There’s very little physical action with it being mostly psychological and it’s killer. This book seems like a horror story, and could be called one due to the mysterious nature of the institute, but it soon becomes a dark magical/psychological novel where each lesson learned changes Sasha. Once I got through her first year, I couldn’t stop reading because, like the character, I had to learn what the purpose of this place was. By the time I got to Part Three I was racing through the book. The more Sasha learns the more tense things got and the faster I had to read. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: You won’t see it coming until the last five pages. It was fantastic. It was awesome. It was perfect. This is how to end a book. Overall grade: A+

The final line: This is a book you will think about after you’re done with it. One might think that this is copying the premise of a famous teenage British wizard, but this goes magnificently into an adult direction that will blow the reader’s mind. It twists and turns between wonders and horrors, taking a reader on a magical, psychological trip that won’t be forgotten. And what a ride it is! I eagerly await the next novel from the Dyachenkos. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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