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Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Prepare for the vaguest of reviews - but the secrets of this book cannot be given away. It’s been a few weeks since I have finished reading Vita Nostra but I have avoided reviewing it because how do you summarise a book like this? Part of what makes the reading experience so unique and compelling is that for more than half of the book the reader does not really know what is happening.

Sasha Samokhina, straight A student, perfect daughter, spends at seaside holiday with her mother where she notices a strange man following, watching her. Pale, with black sunglasses, he appears wherever she is for several days until he finally confronts her and gives her a task to perform. She must go for a swim in the sea at four every morning until the vacation is over. Confused and scared Sasha obliges and is rewarded in the strangest way: suddenly feel sick she throws up a golden coin. Day after day she completes her task and grows a small collection of gold. The summer ends, she returns to school, but she struggles to focus and grows impatient with her studies. Her new mentor Farit and his curious tasks take over her life until he makes a final request: after graduating from high school Sasha is to move to a remote town and take up her place at the Institute of Special Technologies. She leaves everything behind – her mother, the life she thought she’d live – and an unknown journey begins. Her studies are strange, the school books don’t make sense, the professors seem cruel and even the older students are unable to explain what these Special Technologies are they are supposed to be learning. But slowly Sasha begins to change, in ways inexplicable as they defy the rules of space and time the students believed to know.

This vague summary if the plot is all I can offer here. Figuring out what is happening to Sasha and her classmates is central not only to the plot but to the reading experience. And what a reading experience it is! Much of this book is exactly what I don’t like in a novel. The writing was mediocre, the character fairly one dimensional, the plot boring and repetitive. And yet I wanted to keep reading. About a third of the way in I was hooked. The reader is made to figure out what is going on alongside the character in a way that in inexplicable but addictive. This book is a weird, unique mix of genres and themes. There is philosophy and science, it has aspects of a bildungsroman, some have called it the grown up version of Harry Potter and it is filled with metatextual references that just have to warm a literature lover’s heart. It is difficult to recommend a book that is so far from a pleasant read, but once you get into it Vita Nostra is compulsive. Certainly one for lovers of dark academia who are not scared of 400 pages worth of hard work, but the reward for making it to the end is just as good as Sasha’s gold coins.

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