Reread: Vita Nostra by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

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There were plenty of people loved by someone, the ones who carried a seashell, a button, or a black and white photograph in their pockets; no one had been saved by memories, no one had been protected by words and pledges, and those loved greatly by others died too.

I have a bit of a history with Vita Nostra. I don’t know if I first heard of it in a rec thread or found it myself after reading The Scar, but I first read it in 2015, when the translation was ebook-only and more or less self-published. I picked it for during a long car ride…and devoured it in one sitting. And nobody has seemed to have heard of it. I continued wanting to yell about it when it became unavailable, and when it was finally rereleased, of course I went for the hardcover. Then finally, in September, I got the chance to lead a bookclub and the circle was complete.

While on vacation with her mother, Sasha receives a series of strange tasks from a mysterious man in sunglasses that end in her vomiting up equally mysterious golden coins. Unfortunately, refusing is not an option. Soon, she receives an invitation to a magic school and then things get progressively weirder from there.

What I liked the most is that it turns most of magical school tropes on their head. It’s not a power fantasy. It’s not a place where dreams come true, it’s a place where teachers resemble those terrible old school professors with bad “you don’t know shit and I do” attitudes, and you have to study hard or your loved ones will be harmed. The magic is wild and entirely incomprehensible, with a habit of changing people…and as it takes over, the plot gets stranger and more incomprehensible too, culminating in a true head-scratcher of an ending. 

All of it is contrasted by the fact that the students still get up to normal student things as much as they can – have parties, date, break up, have petty arguments with roommates. It feels real. The focus is not on saving the world or any goals larger than passing exams, none of the students know what are they studying for, but simple day-to-day student life at a strange school.

If there are any faults, is that the book is laser-focused on Sasha to the detriment of other characters – and as the star student overachiver, she’s not particularly interesting. I wonder what would have it been like if it was focused on her friend Kostya, who is struggling, or…anyone else. The protagonist being somehow exceptional is one thing in which it follows the mold, and I was not too happy about it.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: anyone who likes trippy shit, those looking for different, darker takes on magic schools, those who like slower stories, those who read The Gray House and have been looking for more
Not recommended to: fans of character-focused books, those who like straightforward stories with clear-cut endings that don’t require discussion to puzzle out, those who don’t like reading about abusive teachers

2 thoughts on “Reread: Vita Nostra by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko”

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