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.
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.
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.