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Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko – Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko – Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
Book Name: Vita Nostra
Author: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko / Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
Publisher(s): HarperCollins (English) Eksmo (Russian)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy / Magical Realism / Metaphysical
Release Date: 2007 (Russia) November 13, 2018 (English)

Readers who enjoyed The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins must read Vita Nostra—the first book in the Metamorphosis series. If not, then they are missing out on this mind-bending, anti-Hogwarts, Russian import! We must show our appreciation to Julia Meitov Hersey as well, for translating the book by this husband and wife duo! Vita Nostra is an experience all readers must venture into in order to witness how infinite the fantasy genre and thus, the speculative fiction genre is.

The story follows Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, as she makes the transition from high school senior to college freshman. Except, she is neither taking exams, nor filling out college applications. During a summer trip to the sea with her mother, Sasha keeps seeing a man who she swears is following her. After confronting him, Sasha is given a task she has to complete each day, or someone close to her will suffer the consequences.

After summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete throughout the school year. It turns out Sasha is undergoing an admissions’ selection process she didn’t register for, and she cannot withdraw from it without facing harsh punishments. When Sasha is selected to attend the Institute of Special Technologies, she is expected to attend class, to follow the rules, and to complete her schoolwork, or face the consequences. Like all the other students at the Institute, a part of Sasha wants to rebel, but the punishment scares her enough into becoming the ideal student.

Once Sasha accepts her role as a student at the Institute, she begins to flourish there and is able to unlock her true potential, which goes beyond any and all expectations the Institute’s professors and advisors have for her, including herself. Sasha’s potential and performance—the mundane and the bizarre—isolates her from her peers and her family, and she must figure out a way to balance her education with her relationships.

A few characters are important to Sasha during her time at the Institute. First, there is her mother, whom at the start of the novel meets, falls in love, and then marries Valentin—a man she meets during the summer trip. (It’s an interesting coincidence for Sasha’s mother to be experiencing love again while Sasha completes her tasks throughout the school year.) After Sasha leaves home to attend the Institute of Special Technologies, both mother and daughter are too busy to maintain the relationship they once had, but they love each other enough to the point where they each make sure that one hasn’t forgotten the other. It’s a love that becomes bittersweet as the story carries on.

Next, is Farit Kozhennikov—the “stranger” stalking Sasha during her summer vacation—who is revealed to be a “representative” of the Institute. He keeps track of Sasha for a year to make sure she completes her tasks before she can be accepted. After Sasha becomes a student there, Farit becomes her advisor who continues to monitor Sasha’s progress at the Institute.

Last—while Sasha is friendly with some of her peers—there is Konstantin Faritovich Kozhennikov, or Kostya, who is Sasha’s best friend. He has his own struggles at the Institute—in addition to being Farit’s son—and the two students support each other throughout the Institute’s arduous program. These characters are Sasha’s constants throughout her education as she struggles to maintain the relationships she has with them, inside and outside of the Institute, all while doing everything she can to protect them.

Vita Nostra stands out because while it seems Sasha is being tested for the opportunity to attend a university similar to Hogwarts or Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, it turns out that the Institute of Special Technologies is an isolated cult-like academy, which rules and punishments rival a special ops training facility. At the same time, once the students are able to make out the cryptic books, the obscure lessons, and the heedless amount of homework and memorization, they realize what they must accomplish and become in order to stay alive. Everything these students learn and accomplish will leave you fascinated with the human experience and engrossed with the story the authors are presenting.

Readers will be impressed not only with the way Marina and Sergey tell the story of how the students undergo both their education and transformation while at the Institute, but also how they make the experience there similar to any other college or university anywhere else in the world. For example, Sasha—like several college students before her—has some difficulties when it comes to her roommates. They are all cordial to each other, but you know they have no interest in remaining roommates once the school year is over. Another example is how Sasha grows into her own person. Even though she is coerced into attending and excelling at the Institute, she does make the transition from adolescence to adult. Whenever she returns home for a visit, Sasha realizes how much she’s changed and becomes used to being on her own. While the students learn how to perform tasks which defy time, matter and physics, they remain students who readers can relate to and sympathize with.

This novel was first published in Russia and Ukraine in 2007, the same year Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released. And, it was the winner of the PocKoH, RosCon for Novels Award, in 2008. Vita Nostra is described as “an anti-Hogwarts” story, in that instead of becoming part of a larger hidden society where everyone is a witch or a wizard, students are selected and isolated from society in order to learn of their abilities and talents in secret from everyone else, including their families. This story could be a twisted cautionary tale about an individual’s expectations of life after secondary school and how life can be diverted from any plans you had for yourself. And, how attending a school like Hogwarts or the Institute of Special Technologies might not be an experience you want to have. On the opposite side, if Hogwarts could exist, then why not the Institute of Special Technologies?

Vita Nostra is the long-awaited translated book for fans of both dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction. Fans of recent releases such as Middlegame by Seanan McGuire and Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo should read this book. Anyone who is interested in reading a book with a cult following—or is a fan of Alan Moore—should read this novel, too. Readers who want to read about a magic or mythological school that is the opposite of Hogwarts and Camp Half-Blood should read this book.

Vita Nostra is a unique blend of breaking reality, family dynamics and growing up. Education is a matter of life and death and terrorism is what works best with these students. Vita Nostra will leave readers demanding more books by the authors to be translated and released to them as they should have been when they were first published in Russian.



  1. Avatar Erisdottir says:

    I’ve read the English translation, and I loved it.

    But don’t go in expecting a Russian Harry Potter. Vita Nostra is in long stretches as confusing to the reader as it is to its characters. Confusion that sometimes rises to the level of frightening, and because Sasha Samokhina is incredibly easy to identify with reading might leave you feeling insecure yourself. And the end won’t resolve all that weirdness. It will resolve open question, but the answer is even more weird.
    If Franz Kafka wrote Harry Potter, and if Franz Kafka was actually enjoyable to read, this would be the result.

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