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 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 works 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
, 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 Graf 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. He demands she swim naked out to a bouy every morning at exactly 4 a.m.
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 technical school no one has ever heard of in a small town that's practically off the map.
Aren't you tired of books being called "Harry Potter for adults"? But I'm sorry, it's such an easy comparison to make, and Vita Nostra
may deserve that label, albeit it's set in an adult unworldly boarding school in a very Russian vein. Sasha has to ride a train to the middle of nowhere to arrive at Torpa, where the Institute of Special Technologies is located, but the Institute is no Hogwarts. The teachers are sometimes warm and friendly, sometimes cold and demanding, but they all force students to study things they don't even understand, pursuing a degree they can't comprehend, to do things after graduation that they can't even imagine.
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, 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.
All of this takes place in a fictional Russian town with a heavy flavor of magical realism. There is a "Sacco and Vanzetti" Avenue. The townspeople seem to tolerate without really accepting or understanding the Institute's students. Sasha initially shares a dorm room with other students, and as she's struggling with her bizarre, incomprehensible subjects, she's engaged in petty roommate conflicts, college students getting illicitly drunk, and eventually relationship drama. The townspeople seem vaguely aware that Institute students are not "normal," but dismiss them as strange, not entirely welcome visitors to their town.
In a very real sense — more real than most so-called "Young Adult" novels — Vita Nostra
is a novel for young adults. It's about becoming an adult, and discovering truly hard tasks where failure actually has consequences, and doing so amidst the swirling temptations of song, dance, 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.”
This is not a "traditional" fantasy novel. It defies Western genre labels. 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 and there are depths that I sensed lurking beneath this translation that might be more evident to its Russian audience. 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 never always made clear to the reader, which forces you to swim in the same existential confusion afflicted upon the characters.
Please, folks, go buy this ebook. It's only $2.99. Yeah, I know, it's Amazon. Someone should tell them how to sell ebooks on other sites. But I want you to read it and I want more people to buy it because I want more of the Dyachenkos' work to be translated into English. You may not love this (my final rating is 4.5 stars for a somewhat raw translation and many moments of befuddlement) but if you want something different
from the same-old, same-old fantasy novel, these are some authors who deserve a wider audience.