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Vita nostra : a novel
2018
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A young girl falls under the spell of a strange, sinister man who asks her to perform odd tasks before convincing her to enroll in a strange and magical school called The Institute of Special Technologies. - (Baker & Taylor)

A young girl falls under the spell of a strange, sinister man who asks her to perform odd tasks before convincing her to enroll in a strange and magical school called The Institute of Special Technologies. 50,000 first printing. - (Baker & Taylor)

&;Vita Nostra&; &; a cross between Lev Grossman&;s &;The Magicians&; and Elizabeth Kostova&;s &;The Historian&; [...] is the anti-Harry Potter you didn&;t know you wanted.&; -- The Washington Post

&;Vita Nostra has become a powerful influence on my own writing. It&;s a book that has the potential to become a modern classic of its genre, and I couldn&;t be more excited to see it get the global audience in English it so richly deserves.&; -- Lev Grossman

Best Books of November 2018 -- Paste Magazine

The definitive English language translation of the internationally acclaimed Russian novel&;a brilliant dark fantasy combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way.

Our life is brief . . .

Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies.

Or, more precisely, she&;s been chosen.

Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction&;brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey&;is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman&;s The Magicians, Max Barry&;s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden&;s The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place far beyond those fantastical worlds.

 

- (HARPERCOLL)

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The definitive English-language translation of the internationally bestselling Russian novel&;a brilliant dark fantasy combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way

Our life is brief . . .

While vacationing at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with an air of the sinister directs her to perform a task with potentially scandalous consequences. He rewards her effort with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or school, she also feels it&;s the only place she should be. Against her mother&;s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute&;s &;special technologies&; are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons are obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them directly for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time&;experiences which are like nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction&;brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey&;is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman&;s The Magicians, Max Barry&;s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden&;s The Bear and the Nightingale.

- (HARPERCOLL)

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Booklist Reviews

While on holiday, Sasha notices a strange man following her. He has an unusual request: swim during the early morning. After a friend is mysteriously injured, Sasha feels that she has to fulfill his command. Even after she returns home, the man keeps coming back with demands. The strangest is that she change her university plans and attend the Institute of Special Technologies. Soon after arriving at the institute, Sasha realizes that this is no ordinary school. She takes classes like philosophy and English, but all students are required to take "Specialty." At first, the readings in Specialty make no sense, but, once she begins to understand, she starts to manifest strange abilities. As Sasha's powers grow, the novel builds to a mind-bending conclusion. While a magical school is a familiar trope, Harry Potter this is not. Dark and foreboding, this fantasy, translated from Russian, is more of philosophical treatise on growing up and the nature of reality than an adventure tale. Readers willing to challenge themselves and slowly digest this deep book will enjoy it immensely. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews

Vita Nostra

There’s really no way to approach Vita Nostra but elliptically, so strap in. By way of orientation, imagine that Hogwarts has opened a satellite campus inside Harry Haller’s Magic Theater from Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and assigned Kafka, Dostoevsky and Rod Serling to oversee the curriculum. This circumstance is likely to incite one of three reactions from readers: befuddlement, terror or magnetic attraction. When you crack the spine of the latest novel from acclaimed Ukrainian authors Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, you’ll get a full measure of all three, and just as with the famed five stages of grief, you may experience any or all of them out of order, and more than once.

Vita Nostra starts out simply enough, with teenager Sasha Samokhina colliding with a strange man who exudes an unexplainable influence over her. Drawing her under his spell, the girl’s unbidden mentor persuades her to enroll in the Institute of Special Technologies, much to her confusion and her mother’s consternation. Once there, the lesson plan is—to put it mildly—fairly opaque, and academic failure is met with unpleasant consequences for the students’ families.

The novel belongs to an expanding Ukrainian genre known as fantastyka, encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror and folkloric traditions. Much of this genre has not yet been translated into English. This particular exemplar could claim both Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969) and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) as antecedents from the sci-fi realm, but also Jose Luis Borges’ Ficciones (1944) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Instantanés (1962) from the lit-fic sphere. Kudos are due to translator Julia Meitov Hersey, whose task cannot have been a simple one, given Vita Nostra’s complexity and sophistication.

I realize that this is a bit of a tease, but if you are at all intrigued by the phrase, “Time is a grammatical concept,” you will find yourself swept into this book’s estimable vortex from page one.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Copyright 2018 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews

Punishingly intense academic pressure transforms a university student into a transcendent being in this harrowing fantasy novel by a married Ukrainian couple, the first in a trilogy. Vacationing at the beach with her mom, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina reacts with terror when a mysterious man in dark sunglasses starts following her around and staring at her. She's right to be scared. He's a supernatural recruiter using coercion—everything from threatening her family to trapping her in time loops—until she agrees to enroll in a provincial university nobody's ever heard of. There, Sasha and her fellow students must memorize long passages of gibberish, solve koanlike math problems, and listen to deadening recordings of silence, all without a single error or misstep, or the people they love will die. Over and over the students are told they're not ready to know the meaning of this work or what their future holds, but their studies change them, eventually uncoupling their existence from the physical plane. In Hersey's sensitive translation, the Dyachenkos (The Scar, 2012, etc.) make vivid the tormenting preoccupations of adolescence and early adulthood: the social anxieties; the baffling dawn of sexuality; the new, uncontrolled powers that come with physical changes; and that simultaneous sense of one's vital importance and one's utter insignificance. It's no surprise that Sasha is at the age when serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder typically first make themselves apparent; the Dyachenkos turn the delusions of mental illness into dangerous magic. Although it fits squarely in the popular school-for-magicians genre, this dark, ambitious, and intellectually strenuous novel will feel like a fresh revelation to fantasy readers glutted with Western wish-fulfillment narratives. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews

Touted as the definitive English-language edition of this internationally acclaimed Russian novel, originally published in 2007, this work begins with Sasha, an ordinary teenager studying special technologies at a remote university far from her family home. Always a good student, Sasha is dismayed to find her textbooks filled with gibberish. The professors are intimidating and perhaps not human. As Sasha makes and then loses friends as her talents manifest, she realizes that failing will put her and her family in danger, and she'll have to overcome her greatest fear: who she'll become if she succeeds. As Sasha explores the philosophy of being and consciousness, readers are immersed in a world in which all reality is suspect. Longtime collaborators, the Dyachenkos deftly create a supernatural environment without using magic, spells, or potions. VERDICT Recommended for readers who appreciate the intensity of student bonding in extreme situations, such as in Donna Tartt's The Secret History or Lev Grossman's The Magicians, and the magical realism of Neil Gaiman, Jorge Luis Borges, and Haruki Murakami.—Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib.

Copyright 2018 Library Journal.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

The Dyachenkos' 2007 novel takes the trope of young people selected for a school for magic and transforms it into an unnerving, deeply philosophical coming-of-age tale. A mysterious man asks 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina to perform a series of bizarre, potentially humiliating tasks that lead to her admission to the enigmatic Institute of Special Technologies. There, students are confronted with unreadable texts and demanding professors, and their obedience is enforced by threats of harm to their families. Sasha excels at the mind-bending, body-transforming "special technologies"; her prodigious talent links her to the hidden mechanics of time, space, and reality itself. But there are no comforting elements of wish-fulfillment in this school story. Her ordeals are frequently harrowing, and all too often she seems nearly powerless in the face of forces that are manipulating and shaping her into something beyond mere humanity. She is nevertheless a sympathetic heroine, and readers will gladly follow her fascinating, disturbing story to its transcendent conclusion. Hersey's translation is plain and straightforward, a wise choice that enhances the deep strangeness of this trippy, vivid novel. Agent: Joshua Getzler, HSG. (Nov.)

Copyright 2018 Publishers Weekly.

School Library Journal Reviews

Originally published in Russian, this modern fantasy follows Sasha Samokhina as she is unwillingly recruited and forced to attend the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies. The teachings seem nonsensical, and failure comes at a high cost, sometimes resulting in the untimely death of a close relative. Through fear and coercion, the students learn at an accelerated speed, unlocking secrets to higher human potential and beyond. The lyrical writing will appeal to those who favor magical realism, and the college atmosphere grounds the novel in the real world. Readers will look forward to the next installment of this fascinating, strange tale. Recommended to fans of Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Katherine Arden's The Bear and the Nightingale. VERDICT A must-purchase for libraries serving fantasy-loving mature teens.—Melanie Leivers, Palm Beach Country Library System, FL

Copyright 2018 School Library Journal.

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