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Review: Vita Nostra

Title: Vita Nostra
Author: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Genre: Fantasy
Page Count: 416
Published by: Harper Voyager
Date Published: November 13, 2018
You can find it here: Bookshop.org

Goodreads Synopsis:

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 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 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, their families 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.


Vita Nostra is a particular read for a particular reader. Defying genre categorization, this story is part fantasy, part lyrical fiction, part psychological thriller … part science fiction entities?? It really swings among many literary branches, never settling or allowing definition. Most notably, it most certainly is not your typical “magical school setting” story. 

This is a cerebral read. It is dense. It is heavy. Being a translated from a Russian piece, the names of the many characters are confusing and sound similar and a lot of time is spent on “out there” concepts like existential existence and corporeal reality. It can be a lot of work to chew through this beast of a book that even lacks chapters for the reader to hang their hat and catch their breath. Vita Nostra definitely could’ve benefited from more grounding in reality, more story spent on some familiar territory with the students, their lives, their feelings. Rather we stumble and stagger along with the characters just hoping some enlightenment will come at the end … but much like what has come before it, the ending is just as head scratching.

If this sounds like a negative review, it isn’t, not really. Because, as I said, for the particular reader this is going to be an unparalleled read. Something about Vita Nostra is compulsively readable – or in my case I couldn’t stop listening to the audiobook, which I highly recommend to cut down on some confusion. The book beats with a pulse of urgency and peril, building and building in atmospheric tension. Definitely bring your thinking cap and block out a good chunk of time, this book demands your attention it its intimidatingly confusing way. You’ll be frustrated and perplexed, but you’ll never read anything quite like it again. 

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