To live is to be vulnerable. A thin membrane of a soap bubble separates one from impenetrable hell. Ice on the road. The unlucky division of an aging cell. A child picks up a pill from the floor.
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is difficult to compare to other books without giving an incorrect impression. While it is a book set in a magic school, it is dissimilar to most everything else I’ve encountered in the magic school subgenre. The students sit under constant threat of severe retribution should they fail to perform – up to and including the deaths of their loved ones. They are assigned strange and esoteric mental exercises, forced to run until they can’t any more, even forced to prostitute themselves. It is a book without chapters, without clear plot or goals. Were I forced to compare it to another, The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan comes closest… yet even it has markedly different content. If this is Harry Potter… it’s Harry Potter without Voldemort, without Dumbledore, and on acid.
The book opens on a day at the beach for young, 16 year old Sasha Samokhina. She feels younger than her years, joyously going down to the shore and swimming with her mother. When a mysterious man begins following her, she quickly begins to fear for her safety. Her concerns are not allayed when he finally speaks to her, giving her his name, Farit, and a strange assignment: she must wake up every morning at 4AM, go down to the beach, remove her clothing, and swim out to the buoy without fail and without being late. It is very, very important that she not be late. And she does it. Until her alarm fails to ring one morning, and the new man her mother has been seeing is taken away in an ambulance due to a heart attack. She does not wake up late again. Each time she completes the task, she vomits strange, golden coins onto the beach.
The first beachgoers appeared on the Street That Leads to the Sea. It was about six in the morning. Hearing them, Sasha stretched on her cot, covered her head with a blanket, and squeezed the coins in her fist, thinking hard.
Her throat felt sore, but the nausea had disappeared completely. Of course, one could assume that Sasha’s stomach couldn’t handle yesterday’s baklava, and that the coins were simply lying in the exact place on the gravel where she became sick. And that the man in the dark sunglasses was simply a pervert who used a very convoluted way of spying on naked girls on the beach. In the dark. In the wee hours of the morning.
She squeezed her irritated eyes shut.
No. One could not assume that.
Farit Kozhennikov is not a kind man. He is harsh and brooks no disobedience – he is a rule, not a guideline. He is not a man to coddle his students, and his brand of love is laced with fear. Farit assigns Sasha other tasks as she grows, and when it comes time for college she receives an acceptance letter to a school she never applied for in a town she’s never heard of: The Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa.
Although the curriculum at Torpa is harsh, it proves to be fascinating to Sasha. She finds a deep and abiding love of learning: the strange material they cover feels correct on a fundamental level. It feels right and allows her to expand in directions she intuitively feels are correct according to an unknown personal framework. Her mind begins as a black box, but the edges and planes within begin to unfold to reveal its inner gears, functions, and phrases as she studies. She contorts her mind to read gibberish, to picture multi-dimensional shapes, to understand the underlying grammar of the universe – and often, the reader is left more than a little uncertain about just what is going on. Sasha changes and becomes something new, different, and somewhat monstrous. I adore this style of book, and found it wonderful to let all the esoterica wash over me, much like Sasha does during the course of her studies. This book takes “language as a magic system” much further than I have ever seen, and does so in a way that makes it feel foreign and dangerous. It is not about learning a language, it is about seeing that language makes up the framework of existence.
“Listen to me, both of you,” Sasha said, smiling beatifically. “Right now you are on your second semester. In a few weeks you will undergo the deconstructive stage. I think that’s what they call it. You will disintegrate into parts… on the inside, and will only be able to think of what is in front of your eyes. You will feel no love, no fear, nothing that would distract you from learning. It is going to be not all that unpleasant, more like strange. And then, if you study hard, and you will, you have no choice… you will recompile. And then you’ll be just a little different. And then, during your second year, when you begin Introduction to Applied Science, then you will remember my words, Yegor. And then you will understand. You will understand something, but chances are, I will never know about it.”
In counterpoint to the cruelty of the school’s advisers and the oddity of their lesson contents, many parts of the students’ university experience are shocking in their normality. Unlike most fantasy school books, this one covers the events that are down to earth and genuine: sneaking moonshine into the dorm room, partying on the weekends, or annoying your roommate by refusing to smoke outside. It was refreshing to see such a normal part of being a new adult be presented as integral to the development of the characters, as such events are often one-offs if they’re addressed at all in other school-based novels. These events are treated as catalysts for growth rather than glossed over as an “obligatory” part of the college experience.
The relationship between Sasha and her classmates is explored through the lens of Sasha’s own self-absorption. She struggles to empathize with others and to think through her own actions, which often causes harm or heartache within the relationships she cultivates. Kostya, Farit’s son, loves her – and she him. Yet her inability to reach out and understand their connection, her fear of that connection, prevents her from taking the steps needed to bridge the gap between them. She sabotages herself at every turn when she interacts with other students as she delves deeper and deeper into her studies. Although she does not realize it, she views those around her as tools. She views herself as the ultimate authority and believes in her own immortality – although I was always rooting for her, it became difficult at times to support her actions. She is young, and is going through changes to her psychological makeup through her studies which are too intense to allow focus beyond herself… and perhaps she is just not a very good person, at times. Her relationship with her mother and stepfather is similarly fraught, particularly as she loses the ability to pretend to be engaged with their lives as her education changes and warps her perception of reality. She wants to reach out, to love, to be connected… but she doesn’t understand quite how. She is a character who believes the world needs to conform to her rather than a character who can bend and touch the world along its own existing contours. She has a strong, strong sense of self which gets in the way of both her personal relationships and, at times, her studies.
She was reflected in Mom, in Valentin, in little Valentin Junior, in another hundred people: she was reflected – surprisingly sharp – in Kostya. She was Ivan Konev’s nightmarish dream. She was reflected in the fate of a distant stranger – her father, who lived on the other side of town.
And she herself was a reflection. This realization made Sasha disintigrate into minute pieces, and then rebuild anew; when she opened her eyes, Valentin stood in front of her, his coat unbuttoned, and he looked bewildered and angry.
Sasha took off her headphones.
“It’s been forty minutes! Do you expect me to run looking for you?”
Marina and Sergey have crafted a unique and strange experience in Vita Nostra, one requiring effort and attention from the reader to unravel. The ending, for example, is left open to interpretation – I highly recommend reading the r/fantasy final discussion post going over the conclusions the community drew, as it can be confusing on a first pass. Obviously, this discussion is filled to the brim with spoilers – spoilers that won’t make much sense until you’re ready for them, spoilers that, as Sasha’s professors put it: “[are] too early for you to know. No need. I promise you though – you will.”
Daughter from the Dark, another novel set in the Vita Nostra universe, is set to be published in English on February 11th, 2020. Harper Voyager has courteously provided me with an ARC, which will be reviewed here nearer to the publication date.