The definitive English language translation of the internationally acclaimed 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 . . .
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.
“The world, as you see it, is not real. And the way you imagine it—it does not even come close. Certain things seem obvious to you, but they simply do not exist.”
Vita Nostra is one of those books that you pick up, and you don’t know what is going to happen, but you know it is going to be an interesting journey. Best magic school book I’ve read since Harry Potter, and those don’t compare at all, least of which is because I was a kid who didn’t know anything about anything when I first read Harry Potter.
Vita starts out with a teenager, Sasha, on summer vacation. Only it is strange because a mysterious man, that no one else seems bothered by, is following her. And he asks Sasha to do something odd: go swimming naked. Naturally, she tells him to go away, but eventually relents to his demands. She humors him because her vacation is nearly over, but it doesn’t end with the vacation, he asks more of her when she is home And she can’t stop. The one time she accidentally slept in, something bad happened and someone around her got hurt – with the implication that it will happen again if she fails in her tasks. So she does everything asked of her because the mysterious man will never ask her do something that is impossible of her.
After proving herself, Sasha is asked to go to a school. No matter her previous plans for life, they have now changed. She is forced to go to this Institute of Special Technologies, or else. Not that she knows what they mean by Special Technologies. And when she gets there, she finds out that everyone else there has been pressed into coming, too, proving themselves with similar things that weren’t impossible for them to do.
But this school is weird. They ask the students to do seemingly impossible tasks, saying that they can’t tell them what they are doing because they wouldn’t understand. Only the tasks aren’t impossible, because they never will ask something that is impossible of the student. The students are told that once they get far enough along in the program, they’ll understand. And the Sasha does really well. She is the top of her year. She is always studying, she is singled out as the role model of the year, and the teachers are very, very pleased at the student they have in her, pushing her harder and harder.
Weird things happen as they progress through the program. Sasha doesn’t understand what is happening to her, the changes that happen to her. And they scare her. And fascinate her. She keeps going, because she wants to learn. The philosophy and math and the special studies and the weird mental exercises and texts that don’t make sense but must be memorized. She wants to know it all. She can’t stop. She literally can’t stop, even when she is told to. But Sasha keeps going. She is fascinated, and she wants to learn.
But what is all this studying accomplishing? That’s the big question.
I loved this book. Magic school meets horror. It is the perfect mix of “What the fuck is going on?” and” Oh god I need to know more”. And that ending is bananas and I’m still not even certain I understand it. Vita Nostra is one of those books where you just kind of sit and think about it for a while when you’re done with it. And then go searching for more because you remembered this was a series, only to find out that books two and three aren’t even the same story, they’re a loose collection of ideas. And aren’t translated yet so you can’t read them anyway to see how they could possibly be the same series.
I love how Sasha changes throughout the book. From being a worried teenager, who wants to do carefree teenager things, to going to school and becoming angry because she doesn’t want to be there and the curriculum is weird. And then she gets into her studies and LOVES it. Followed then by Sasha changing, becoming different, acting weird. Followed by her descending further and further into her studies and, to us, madness. What she ends up as? You’ll have to read to find out.