Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (book review).

July 18, 2019 | By | Reply More

‘Vita Nostra’ has been translated from Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s original Russian by talented translator Julia Meytov Hersey. How anyone goes about translating something so alien is beyond me, but what has emerged in English is a compelling yet often confusing tale of one girl’s education in the surreal, mystical and metaphysical arts.

Sasha Samokhina is on holiday when she meets a strange man who asks her to go swimming at a specific time every day. Compelled by curiosity and an uneasy sense of foreboding, Sasha does as he asks, earning golden coins for her efforts. Strange as this request seems, it is only the start of a series of ever more peculiar tasks, culminating in the instruction to enrol at the Institute of Special Technologies.

When drastic consequences follow any refusal she attempts, Sasha resignedly accepts her fate and embarks upon a bizarre and utterly life-changing course of study. In a programme where failure has serious consequences, Sasha must learn to control her fears, control her mind and master powers beyond her wildest imagination if she is to survive her schooling. When and, indeed if she emerges, things will never be the same again.

This is a book unlike any other I’ve read, both in style and story. If you’re hoping for a Russian ‘Harry Potter’ then I fear you’re in for a big disappointment because although this may be billed as featuring a school of magic, it’s nothing so crude as basic spell-casting and wand waving. Instead, ‘Vita Nostra’ takes you on a journey inside the mind of its main character, Sasha Samokhina, and, in doing so, takes you on a fantastical journey inside your own mind, too.

The imagery in here is both impossible and wonderful and, more than once, I found myself re-reading sections of the book in order to desperately try to grasp an image in my mind of some of the exercises Sasha is forced to perfect. It really gives the imagination a thorough workout, taking it through complex ideas, philosophical conundrums and incomprehensible feats before bringing you back to reality or at least some version of reality that might not quite be the same as the one in which you started.

In a review I normally like to discuss plot, but ‘Vita Nostra’ really isn’t about what actually happens. It’s more about what could happen and why it might happen and how you could influence that outcome if you practice so hard your brain undergoes a fundamental shift in how it operates. It’s a book that will stretch you but also entertain you and I found it utterly fascinating even when I was completely baffled by what was going on.

It’s very difficult to give you a taste of this book in a review like this because ‘Vita Nostra’ doesn’t fit neatly into any categories. It doesn’t follow any particular flavour of the speculative fiction spectrum and it doesn’t like to play by the rules in general. In short, it’s something you really ought to try for yourself because my words can’t explain it for you.

Just go and pick it up and see what reality it takes you to when you get lost in its pages. You might love it, you might hate it, but either way you’ll certainly experience something new.

Vinca Russell

July 2019

(pub: HarperVoyager, 2018. 416 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-06269-459-1)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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