Vita Nostra Book Review

Hello Everybody!

I hope you all had a great New Years! I sure did! I’ve been looking forward to 2022 for awhile because I got a wide range of books to show you like this one:

Have you ever read a book that boggled your entire mind? A book so confusing that you have to double check to make sure that you read it right? Recently, I read a novel like that called Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. It may not be for everyone, yet for those who chose to go on this journey, it’s worth it.

Translated from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, Vita Nostra is a dark version of Harry Potter. While vacationing with her mom, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov. He directs her to perform certain tasks, and she is powerless to refuse. Every time she completes one, she is rewarded with strange gold coins. As her schooling and summer end, her domineering mentor makes her move to a remote village and use her gold coins to enroll in the Institute of Special Technologies. Even though Sasha doesn’t want to go, she feels that this is the only place she should be at. She quickly finds out that the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered like the books being impossible to read and the lessons being maddening. The institute uses terror and coercion to keep students in line, yet they don’t outright punish them. Instead, their families pay a price. Despite her fear, Sasha goes through changes that defy matter and time as well as experiences which were nothing she ever dreamed of and suddenly all she ever wanted.

As one can see from this summary, it’s a lot, but it’s truly like Harry Potter. Like Sasha, Harry also goes to a magical school and experiences things that he couldn’t ever dream of while living with the Dursleys. The difference is how intense Vita Nostra can get, especially with how Sasha is forced to go to the school almost against her own will. 

However, that summary doesn’t quite describe everything that goes on in the book. The YouTube channel “rincy reads” expressed the novel as this: “This book is like Harry Potter, but if it was written by Kafka.”

Although I’ve never read anything by Franz Kafka, I couldn’t have interpreted that book any better. That author wrote a novella called The Metamorphosis, and Sasha goes through one herself of a slightly different sort.

At first, I was a little worried since the book contained no chapters, just sections that functioned like a 3-act play. I was about to get flashbacks to The Polished Hoe until I noticed that every first line in every subsection was bolded. I have a feeling that either the authors or the translator were aware that readers might not have a place to stop reading for the time being, hence the bold first sentences. 

That was a clever move, for it grabbed me from the very first page, and there were times that I couldn’t put it down. I could vividly imagine a lot of the locations like the remote village, especially when Sasha and Kostya – Farit’s son – first encounter it. At times, I was addicted to the book like Sasha was to her textbooks. In fact, she got so into her homework that her professors had to stop her from going too far on multiple occasions. 

As other readers have mentioned, this is an accurate depiction of being confused by something and then immediately getting it. Sasha and her classmates at the Institute of Special Technologies are often befuddled by the text that they have read for various assignments. They, especially the protagonist, ask the professors why, and they are often told that they can’t tell them quite yet, but they will get it in due time. The more Sasha reads the paragraphs, the more she gets them to the point that she has little to no social life. That kind of sounded like me when I was in high school and in college. And this even reflects how I felt while reading this book. I had no idea what the school was trying to teach them, and I wanted Sasha to know too, so it was good that both of us were in the same boat.

Speaking of Sasha, I’m glad that the authors wrote her as flawed. She is someone who’s so consumed by her work that she drives people away from her. She even scares a lot of the younger students because of how strict, assertive, and studious she is. This can make her seem cold, but she is a loving daughter to her mother and eventually warms up to her step-father and baby half-brother. She even has feelings for Kostya, but she constantly denies them in lieu of doing the assignments. In other words, it’s good to see a truly flawed female protagonist.

The book talks about philosophy a good chunk of the time like ceasing to be human and to become a verb, word, etc. I thought these sections were just alright as I focused more on figuring out what was even going on and if Sasha will survive the school.

Now, let’s talk about the ending. I’ll give no spoilers. All I will say is this: at first, I thought that it was one of the most WTF conclusions I have ever read. However, once I learned that it was the first book in a trilogy, I began to see it as a beginning to something else. Although it still doesn’t change the fact that the ending was crazy, I’m willing to read the other two novels to see how things play out because of that conclusion.

Overall, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is not your average fantasy, magic-realism book. Weird things happen, but you get addicted to it pretty quickly. It helps that the protagonist is flawed in a good way. I would recommend this to those who like books that involve magic schools, darker fantasy novels, Harry Potter, and Kafka. Like I said earlier, it’s not for everyone because of how confusing it can get, but if you are willing to read it, you’ll probably remember it for a long time. 

What are your favorite translated books? Let me know in the comments!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at two public libraries in southeast Michigan, and I facilitate a book club for one of them. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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