Book Review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko


vn-coverWhile 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 itโ€™s the only place she should be. Against her motherโ€™s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the instituteโ€™s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered. 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, their families 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.



Gonna be honest, writing a review of this book is really difficult. It’s a book I loved but trying to pin down why I loved it or even what this book is about is like trying to grasp fog with your hands. If nothing else, know that I loved the experience of reading this book and it’s given me a lot to think about.

This book takes a typical fantasy trope, a ‘magic school’ and makes it feel fresh. First of all, this book does not explain anything. Nothing is handed to the main character, nor us as readers. The story starts off ‘normal’ enough, with a girl, Sasha, and her mother as they’re on holiday at the seaside. Sasha runs into a mysterious stranger who asks her to perform an action for him daily–swim out to a buoy every morning at 4am. This is a super odd request and Sasha wants to ignore this strange man but it soon becomes clear that isn’t an option. And so she does and then after the swims she starts throwing up gold coins. What is happening? We never really find out. But we know it’s odd! From there Sasha is invited (well, it seems like she has a choice but it becomes clear, again, that she really has little choice) to attend a special university, the Institute of Special Technologies.

School starts off almost normally. She meets a lot of other first year students and makes friends (and enemies). Sure, the third year students are a little….off…somehow but Sasha does her best to ignore that and focus on her studies and her social life. Although a lot of time is spent with Sasha in the classes and doing various ‘exercises’ as schoolwork, it’s never really clear what these things are supposed to accomplish. But as she gets further and further into these teachings odder and odder things start happening. Sasha wants to know but the teachers keep telling her that they literally can not explain as she hasn’t reached the level where she’ll be able to comprehend any explanation they give her. I feel like this is super clever of the authors because now you don’t ever have to explain and you keep the reader thinking about what is happening. What does it all mean?

Much of the story is spent with Sasha’s reaction to what is happening and the reactions of the other students, how they are handling or not handling things. There’s also a lot of interpersonal drama around the various people in Sasha’s life and how she relates with them. Many of these relationships are strained as Sasha becomes obsessed by her studies. All of the interpersonal drama was an interesting mundane counter to all of the very bizarre things happening whenever Sasha practices the exercises from school. It’s like this book is slice of life but it’s a very strange life we’re getting a glimpse of. Despite a lot of things happening, there’s not a lot of actual plot. Instead the story focuses on all of these reactions and feelings of the characters, especially Sasha.

There is a lot about grammar at the end and I wasn’t sure how that was important until the very end when things take on a religious aspect. But in a sense I think this creation at the end is not as much about the obvious religious overtones as it is about act of creating and writing? Maybe? Again, I’m still trying to parse this book out but I do think it’s one of those stories that speaks directly to the creative mind. At the end of the day, I love a book that makes me think. 5/5 stars.

27 thoughts on “Book Review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

  1. Maryam (@thecurioussffreader) says:

    This book sounds amazing! I really want to read it! ๐Ÿ˜€
    And I’m completely agree with your statement on struggling to pinpoint why you loved the book, it’s often hard for me to review my favorite books, it’s so hard to explain why a book worked for you completely!

  2. dinipandareads says:

    Wow, this sounds crazy and definitely in a good way! This review has made me want to pick it up asap. I know it’s always so much harder to write reviews about the books we love but you wrote your thoughts up nicely! My interest is super piqued ๐Ÿ‘€

  3. Tammy says:

    I’ve been curious about this, but I’m not sure its my kind of book. Just your description of the beginning makes me think this might be too weird for me!

  4. dianthaa says:

    I definitely loved the experience of reading this book, and it really got to me, I was dreaming of doing Sasha’s exercises every night for a week

  5. JonBob says:

    I keep hearing people talk about the Dyachenkos but Iโ€™d never actually heard of them before going the book community. I feel like they write the kind of bizzaro fiction that gets my juices flowing. Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    Reading your review I understood why writing it proved somewhat difficult: this sounds like a weird (in a good sense) story, and one that defies descriptions – I guess it must be experienced to be fully appreciated…. Color me intrigued, and thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

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