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Book Review: Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

A mind-bending contemporary Russian dark fantasy about a girl who becomes a Word.


Vita Nostra

Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012, approximately 144,000 words (Originally published in Russian in 2007)



The words VITA NOSTRA, or "our life," come from an old Latin student anthem Gaudeamus : "Vita nostra brevis est, Brevi finietur" or "Our life is brief, It will shortly end ..."

The heroine of the novel has been forced into a seemingly inconceivable situation. Against her will, she must enter the Institute of Special Technologies. A slightest misstep or failure at school-and the students' loved ones pay a price. Governed by fear and coercion, Sasha will learn the meaning of the phrase "In the beginning was the word ..."

VITA NOSTRA is a thrilling journey into the deepest mysteries of existence, a dizzying adventure, an opening into a world that no one has ever described, a world that frightens and attracts the readers of the novel.

The novel combines the seemingly incongruous aspects-spectacular adventures and philosophical depth, incredible transformations and psychological accuracy, complexity of ethical issues and mundane details of urban life.




Vita Nostra

This is a most unusual novel, especially for Western readers. It's strange and thoughtful and dark, full of psychological twists and turns, metaphysical tangents, and the desperately humorous shenanigans of young adults carrying on at a grim modern Russian boarding school that is turning them all into... what, they do not exactly know.

I described Marina and Sergey Dyachenko's novel The Scar as "swords & sorcery if written by Fyodor Dostoevsky." I don't think I'm stretching the Russian-lit analogy too much to call this book "Harry Potter if written by Leo Tolstoy."

I liked The Scar so much that I sought out other novels by the Dyachenkos translated into English. Sadly, there are was only one: Vita Nostra, the first book in their "Metamorphosis cycle." And it's only available on Amazon as an ebook. According to the afterword, it was translated by a Russian-born fan living in the U.S., which explains why the translation didn't read with the same professional smoothness as the Tor-published The Scar.

The Scar, with its themes of morality and consequences, punishment and redemption, reminded me of Dostoevsky. Vita Nostra is an even darker story, with occasional flashes of humor surfacing in the dark waters of a story that seems to be dragging you along toward some unknown, unknowable fate, with characters who have few choices, who know they exist only to act out their predefined roles. They resist this predestination, even knowing that resistance is futile. This valiant effort to find hope in the face of crushing inevitability reminded me more of that grim old sourpuss Count Tolstoy.

Alexandra "Sasha" Samokhina is a 17-year-old straight-A student, preparing to apply to university. She's been a good girl, a dutiful daughter to her single mother. Then one day a stranger appears while she and her mother are on vacation at the beach, and makes an unusual demand of her.


“I want to give you a task to perform. It’s not hard. I never ask for the impossible.”

“How… What does it have to…?”

“Here is the task. Every day, at four in the morning, you must go to the beach. You will undress, go into the water, swim one hundred meters and touch the buoy. At four in the morning the beach is empty, there won’t be anyone to hide from.”

Sasha felt as if someone hit her on the head. Is he crazy? Are they both crazy?

“What if I won’t do it? Why would I…?”

The black lenses hung in front of her like two black holes leading nowhere.

“You will, Sasha. You will. Because the world around you is very fragile. Every day people fall down, break their bones, die under the wheels of a car, drown, get hepatitis or tuberculosis. I really don’t want to tell you all this. But it is in your interests to simply do everything I ask of you. It’s not complicated.”


Following some instinct, Sasha complies... and each morning after her swim, she vomits up gold coins. She soon learns that the world is indeed fragile, and that refusing Farit Kozhennikov's demands has a heavy price.

Farit's unusual "tasks" continue when Sasha and her mother go home. Sasha finds herself alienated from her friends, and distanced from her mother, who does not understand what strange pressures her daughter is under. It only gets worse when Sasha informs her mother that instead of the university they both planned on, she has to attend the Institute of Special Technologies, a school no one has ever heard of in a small town out in the middle of nowhere.

So, the inevitable "Harry Potter for adults" description. I'll go there because I do think Potter fans will enjoy this book, even if the similarities are superficial. Sasha has to ride a train to the middle of nowhere to arrive at Torpa, and endure a school full of bizarre events, strange and not always friendly teachers, mysterious hazards, and feuding classmates.

But the Institute for Special Technology is no Hogwarts, and Vita Nostra is a very Russian story. And of course Sasha and her friends are university students, not 11-year-olds. So there is drinking, smoking, and sex, and much of the novel may be regarded as a metaphor for anxiety about growing up. The Institute for Special Technologies is not a happy, nurturing place, though neither is it a Soviet-era reeducation camp. All of the students have been selected for reasons they don't understand, forced to come there, and made to pursue studies in classes they can't comprehend, toward a degree they know nothing about, for a career they can't even imagine.


The hunchback made his own schedule of the individual sessions, not trusting this task to anyone else. Sasha was the last one on his list; she had time to go to the library and experiment with the new set of exercises.

The first glance did not deceive her: the new exercises were similar to the old ones, but were substantially more complex. Multilevel transformation of entities, infinitely abstract, that sometimes formed a circle, sometimes compressed to a single point, ready at any moment to break through and rip apart the fabric of visualized reality; if these were somebody else’s thoughts, they were so decidedly inhuman that Sasha was simply scared to imagine a brain naturally capable of producing these chimeras. At the same time—Sasha already knew enough to see this—these exercises were astonishingly beautiful in their harmony.


The oppressive lack of information and the constant undercurrent of foreboding, the threat of sinister consequences for failure, makes the reader as frustrated as Sasha for much of the book. What is the Institute for Special Technologies? Are they teaching magic? Are students learning to alter the fabric of reality? Are they being transformed into something inhuman? It's not really explained at all until near the end, and even then it's very abstract and metaphysical. Sasha undergoes transformations, exhibits frightening powers she doesn't understand, and moves from a frightened, confused First Year to a confused, increasingly alienated Third Year, one with a talent that exceeds that of all her classmates, though her own teachers won't even tell her what her talent is and why she's so special.

The setting sometimes feels like it's grounded in modernism, and sometimes it feels more like magical realism. The town of Torpa is just a tiny train-stop out in the boonies. The main street through the town is called, without ever any explanation, Sacco and Vanzetti Avenue. The townspeople seem vaguely aware that Institute students are not "normal," but dismiss them as strange, not entirely welcome visitors to their town. No one ever says anything about it directly. Telephones are not ubiquitous, and cell phones exist but are extremely rare. Sasha initially shares a dorm room with other students, and as she's struggling with her bizarre, incomprehensible subjects, she's forced to deal with petty roommate conflicts, drunken debauchery, and exams that might cost a loved one's life if you fail.

Moreso than most so-called "Young Adult" novels, Vita Nostra is a novel for young adults. It's about becoming an adult, and facing truly difficult tasks that might seem stupid and nonsensical to you but where failure actually has consequences, and doing so amidst the dizzying temptations of parties, alcohol and sex. It's about the confusion of not knowing what you're going to be when you grow up, of seeing yourself as a free-willed individual with choices lying ahead of you and then discovering that you are at the mercy of forces you cannot control or negotiate with. It's about trying not to lose the parent-child bond even when you are forced to let go.


“You’ve just seen me?” Portnov sounded surprised. “You manifest entities, read highly complex informational structures, and you’ve only just seen me?”

Sasha managed a shallow nod, and then shut her eyes, trying to drive the tears back into her eyes.

“What’s the matter?” now Portnov sounded worried. “Sasha?”

“You are not human,” Sasha whispered.

“So? Neither are you.”

“But I had been human. I had been a child. I remember that. I remember being loved.”

“Does it matter to you?”

“I remember it.”


Poll #1926279 Vita Nostra

Have you read Vita Nostra?

Yes.
3(20.0%)
Yes, in Russian!
4(26.7%)
No, but now I want to.
8(53.3%)
No, and I'm not interested.
0(0.0%)

Have you read any other books by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko?

Yes.
7(50.0%)
No.
7(50.0%)




Verdict: Vita Nostra does not fit neatly into a genre category. The translator calls it "urban psychological science fiction and fantasy." It's as much horror as fantasy, as much contemporary realism as it is magical realism. It's rather hard to describe and it was sometimes frustrating to read. There are many literary and historical allusions, and there were depths that I sensed lurking beneath this translation that might be more evident to its Russian audience.

I want you to read it (moreover, I want you to buy it — the ebook is only $2.99), because I want more of the Dyachenkos' work to be translated into English. But this is certainly a book that will not be to everyone's taste. If you like dark fantasy, I think you will like it. If you like Russian literature (and don't mind a fantastic element), you will definitely like it. But it's a very strange book, and it doesn't follow a standard Western fantasy arc. Things are described in vague, esoteric terms and the relevance and meaning is not always made clear to the reader, which forces you to swim in the same existential confusion afflicted upon the characters.

Supposedly Vita Nostra is now in pre-production as a Russian movie. I don't know if it will ever make it to Netflix, but if this movie does happen I'd really like to get my hands on a copy.

Also by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko: My review of The Scar.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy, highly recommended, marina and sergey dyachenko, reviews
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