Darkness. “In the beginning was the Word.”
One of the most engrossing reading experiences of the year, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, is a dark and philosophical fantasy novel that examines the fundamentals of existence and will most likely appeal to fans of X-Men comics, Lexicon by Max Barry, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.
“I want to give you a task to perform. It’s not hard. I never ask for the impossible.”
The story follows Alexandra “Sasha” Samokhina, who, while vacationing at the beach with her mother, encounters a mysterious stranger, Farit Kozhennikov, who manipulates her into performing strange tasks with an even more peculiar reward. As Sasha soon finds out, the price for disobeying is terrible, so she agrees to comply with the stranger’s bizarre requests. This all takes her on an increasingly strange path that leads to a mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, located in a small town in rural Russia, with weird teachers and students. Sasha and her classmates are forced to attend very unconventional courses and the study schedule is gruelling. Moreover, every failure or misstep results in a terrible punishment, but, instead of the students, it’s their loved ones who have to pay the price. Ironically, the demanding and exhausting study process at this strange institute, where they spend long nights cramming for exams with no concrete aim in sight, felt like a pretty accurate depiction of academic life (except for the incredibly cruel punishments, of course).
This is a very difficult book to summarize without revealing too much, so I’ll just say that, as the story develops, it gets progressively weirder, darker and more philosophical. In a good way. Even though I’m still not entirely sure that I understood all the underlying philosophical concepts.
There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.
Readers and reviewers often describe a book as engrossing or that they couldn’t put it down, but, in my experience, these kinds of reading experiences are actually very rare. I’m an avid reader but I can recall only a small number of books that really provided me with the experience of being completely transported into another world and not wanting the book to end. I’m happy to report that Vita Nostra was one of those experiences. There’s been an interesting trend in fantasy fiction in recent years, where authors try to incorporate elements from Russian culture and mythology into their worldbuilding, however, unfortunately, the end results are often full of obvious errors that immediately pull me out of the story, so it was very refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the Russian setting actually feels authentic.
Overall, this was a suspenseful, imaginative, and smart fantasy novel with a strong, clever, and assertive main character that explores the mysteries of the universe and transformative nature of deep intellectual studies. The story also serves as a great allegory for the transformation, both physical and psychological, that young adults go through as they grow up and mature. Highly recommended!