Vita Nostra is a dark, enthralling fantasy quite unlike any other. Avoiding many contemporary plot devices, the book relies instead on an intoxicating sense of place and vivid character development. It uses only the barest edge of traditional fairy tale and magical fantasy tropes and takes them in unexpected directions, surprising the reader on every page. One part coming of age tale, one part contemporary magic school, and a sizable part dark reality, Vita Nostra is a beautiful, aching, nearly debilitating fantasy that bruises, and thrills, the heart.
The novel reads at first like an ominous and mature Harry Potter: rather than an unhappy child transported to a magical school to explore almost endless possibilities, Sasha is taken from her fairly happy though mundane life and brought to a postsecondary institution with one course of study and only one possible outcome. The strangeness of the Institute is most apparent in the Specialty course, where students are given bizarre coursework: memorizing passages they can’t read and that make no sense, booklets of 'exercises' that seem impossible to solve, even assignments given on CD audio tracks ... Maturation is itself addressed as a form of transformation over the course of the novel, explored through several facets of Sasha’s life as she departs girlhood and grows into womanhood while attending the Institute ... Like the exercises Sasha works through in the novel, Vita Nostra seems at first to be just beyond comprehension, but as readers proceed, it becomes more and more intoxicating as understanding blooms in the reader’s mind.
The outstanding quality of the novel lies in its authors'...ability to maintain a deep layer of suspense and mystery throughout ... suspense is maintained until nearly the end; a prodigious and impressive feat on behalf of the authors. They manage to maintain an equilibrium of suspense and plausibility while giving away only the slightest glimpse ... fundamentally, what the novel grapples with is the broad question of what makes us human ... Vita Nostra is a mysterious sort of novel. The narrative is engaging and a pleasure to follow; the sense of slowly unfolding mystery and suspense is riveting and the book is hard to put down ... the Dyachenkos have produced a remarkable novel and one that will linger long afterward in the reader's thoughts.
The novel belongs to an expanding Ukrainian genre known as fantastyka, encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror and folkloric traditions. Much of this genre has not yet been translated into English...Kudos are due to translator Julia Meitov Hersey, whose task cannot have been a simple one, given Vita Rostra’s complexity and sophistication. I realize that this is a bit of a tease, but if you are at all intrigued by the phrase, 'Time is a grammatical concept,' you will find yourself swept into this book’s estimable vortex from page one.
Dark and foreboding, this fantasy, translated from Russian, is more of philosophical treatise on growing up and the nature of reality than an adventure tale. Readers willing to challenge themselves and slowly digest this deep book will enjoy it immensely.
The Dyachenkos’ novel takes the trope of young people selected for a school for magic and transforms it into an unnerving, deeply philosophical coming-of-age tale ... Hersey’s translation is plain and straightforward, a wise choice that enhances the deep strangeness of this trippy, vivid novel.
Vacationing at the beach with her mom, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina reacts with terror when a mysterious man in dark sunglasses starts following her around and staring at her. She’s right to be scared. He’s a supernatural recruiter using coercion—everything from threatening her family to trapping her in time loops—until she agrees to enroll in a provincial university nobody’s ever heard of. There, Sasha and her fellow students must memorize long passages of gibberish, solve koanlike math problems, and listen to deadening recordings of silence, all without a single error or misstep, or the people they love will die ... Although it fits squarely in the popular school-for-magicians genre, this dark, ambitious, and intellectually strenuous novel will feel like a fresh revelation to fantasy readers glutted with Western wish-fulfillment narratives.