Monday, March 4, 2019

Review: Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Vita Nostra
Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, trans. Julia Hersey
Harper Voyager, 2018
Hardcover. 416 pages.

About Vita Nostra:

"Our life is brief . . .

Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies. 

Or, more precisely, she’s been chosen. 

Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons 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 for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are 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 classics such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Max Barry’s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place far beyond those fantastical worlds."

Vita Nostra is an unassumingly ambitious novel with unpredictable developments that makes for a truly engrossing read. In all honestly, this review is probably going to be on the shorter side because I'm not entirely sure how to talk about it or explain it without going too deeply into the plot, something that I wanted to avoid as much as possible so as not to give away too much. This is absolutely a book that I think is best enjoyed when read without knowing more than the basics of the plot. 

This was a novel that genuinely felt unlike anything I've read in the past. There are some familiar core trope elements, such as a boarding school setting, but the story itself is so unconventional that it feels entirely its own. There are instructors that give the students a lot of work, there are some minor rivalries within the school, but it's the method of teaching and the way the students handle this 'education' that is what sets it apart and makes it such a compelling story.

I really liked how much we were able to get into the head of Sasha, the protagonist and the only POV that the story follows. Sasha undergoes so much internal stress, both emotionally-induced and school-induced, which is displayed in such a personal and open manner that I was able to have an extremely close connection to her character and understand her struggles and decisions. It was a compelling experience to follow along as she slowly learned more and more about what was happening while also navigating her attempts to maintain her familial and personal relationships. There are a few other characters that play prominent roles in the book that I also found myself extremely invested in and I'm impressed how well that authors created so many interesting characters. 

Another strong point of Vita Nostra was that the pacing was very steady throughout, and it was only in the latter middle half of the book that it seemed slightly slower than the rest of the book. However, this slower pacing almost acts as a plot/story enhancement in how it matches the mood of Sasha's current situation and the tone of the book perfectly. 

Vita Nostra is the sort of book that doesn't give the reader an overtly obvious plot destination to start with, which ended up being a major part of its charm for me. The reader is left just as unsure and in the dark as Sasha and the other students that end up at the Institute of Special Technologies. The authors crafted this setup masterfully and somehow managed to create a story that pulled me in almost immediately and left me glued to each and every page. There is a constant sense of foreboding, a mixture of hopelessness and desperate curiosity; this book feels like a masterpiece. It's an incredible addictive atmosphere that made me unable to stop thinking about this book and constantly want to learn more about everything that was going on.

 Overall, I can't help but give Vita Nostra five stars. I considered 4.75, but this book really went above and beyond for me and I feel it deserves that full five. 

Buy the book: Amazon | Book Depository | IndieBound


  1. This sounds like a book my book club would LOVE! Great review!

    1. It would make an awesome book club pick I think, it has a lot to discuss.

  2. Wow, awesome review! I'm definitely keeping this on my radar, I do love when books surprise me😁