Review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko - 8.75/10*
Words define things. They add substance. They symbolize a thing. But they are not the thing itself. Kant suggests that the ding an sich is unknowable. That’s an approximation of how I feel about Vita Nostra, written by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and translated by Julia Meitov Hersey. This is a brilliant novel that is difficult to describe with words. I worry that the essence of this novel can only be experienced, not reviewed or described.
Yet words are the only medium I have for a review, and so I must use them. I could call the novel ominous, dark, suspenseful, thrilling, introspective, and provocative. All those words would be accurate. It’s also engrossing and gripping. It’s been awhile since a novel has grabbed me as much as Vita Nostra. Sasha, the main character, is forced—quite against her will—to attend a magic school. It’s sort of Harry Potter set in Russia with older characters and oblique and not so oblique references to Kant, Cicero, and Shakespeare. Also, the professors are…well, not like Dumbledore. What the Dyachenkos do amazingly well is Sasha’s characterization. Her voice jumps off the pages and hooks you from almost the first paragraph. One is gripped by the question of her fate, what she is becoming. There are elements of horror and psychological suspense in this story as well. The plot and pacing are excellent, keeping the pages turning. This is the sort of novel I could easily have seen myself staying up into the wee hours of the morning to finish. The engaging plot, excellent pacing, and amazing characterization makes the story jump off the page. The take on magic in this novel is scientific in the extreme, and yet doesn’t quite feel like any other hard magic system I’ve ever encountered. While being scientific it remains mysterious, scary, and at times more than a little creepy. Frankly, I’m amazed this hasn’t already been turned into a movie or Netflix miniseries.
Having loved the novel so much, what prevents it from achieving a perfect or near perfect score? For me there were moments where I became confused. Possibly some finer point of the philosophical soared over my head, and had I brushed up more recently on my European philosophers I might have avoided confusion. Perhaps it was the style of the narrative, which often has brief time jumps with little blocking or explanation. There were a few times when I simply sat back and wondered why Sasha was making the decisions she was making, or behaving in the way she was behaving. There was a particular section toward the middle of the novel when these tendencies led to a bit of frustration on my part.
Vita Nostra is a dark and suspenseful read. There are moments where the narrative feels ominous and moments where it feels introspective—often it feels both. If you enjoy more literary fantasy that is highly psychological and cerebral, touching on philosophical questions, this is the one for you. 8.75/10