I picked up “Vita Nostra” largely out of curiosity. I’d never heard of the authors before, but I’m always up for some Russian literature in translation, and the fact that it was contemporary fantasy made it even more intriguing. But when diving into these things, you never know what you’re going to get.
And indeed, I was in for a wild ride. The authors, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, write what they call “M-realism.” What “M-realism” is the authors have declined to clarify, although a quick Google search does turn up the theory, propounded by N. Tennant, that “M-realism is the idea that one rejects bivalence and assents to the recognition-transcendent requirement.” So there you have it.
Anyway, “Vita Nostra” occupies a fascinating liminal literary space between fantasy and hard sci-fi, and between your typical urban/academy fantasy and literary fiction. The main character, Sasha Samokhina, is a teenager who turns out to have an amazing, massive, magical gift. What that magical gift is, though, is not revealed, not even to her, until the end of the book. Instead, she’s coerced into completing a series of nonsensical tasks, and then forced into enrolling in a peculiar institute in a small provincial town.
Once there, she is given more nonsensical and infuriating tasks, while being bullied and threatened by her instructors. Always a straight-A student, Sasha becomes a manic workaholic, until the bizarre assignments start to become clear to her, and she begins to see the larger pattern of which she is a part. At which point she begins making changes to herself and the world around her–changes that could have tragic consequences for all concerned.
Readers of academy fantasy (e.g., “Vampire Academy”) will recognize many familiar elements in “Vita Nostra.” It even has a handsome PT instructor named Dima whom all the girls have a crush on, just like “Vampire Academy.” But while “Vita Nostra” has a compelling plot that will drag you along with it whether you want it to or not, it is decidedly metaphysical and metaliterary fair compared with its YA brethren. Although the basic storyline, of an adolescent girl who gets pulled into a magical school and goes through a coming-of-age process there, both intellectually and romantically, is the same, “Vita Nostra” has a lot less wish fulfillment and a lot more meditation on things like the coercive nature of education and the very makeup of reality itself.
The translation must have been quite a challenge, given the theoretical nature of its underlying themes, as well as the word play involved in some of the key scenes (particular credit should go to the interplay between “verb” and “reverberate” in the translation). It reads very smoothly, though, preserving the essential foreignness of the topic while translating it into colloquial, readable English.
“Vita Nostra” is a compelling read, but it’s not light reading. If you’re looking for “Vampire Academy 2,” this may not be it. But if you’re interested in reading some very smart, very thought-provoking contemporary fantasy/sci fi in translation, I highly recommend it.