Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s 2007 Vita Nostra is a modern fantasy novel. Or perhaps it would be better described as cosmic horror. The 2018 English translation is by Julia Meitov Hersey. It is the first volume in the Dyachenko’s Metamorphozy series.
Sixteen-year-old Sasha Samokhina has potential few others can match. Too bad for Sasha.
While vacationing with her mother, teenage Sasha is approached by a mysterious man. Farit Kozhennikov is no mere pervert. He is in fact much worse. Farit orders Sasha to perform a set of seemingly meaningless tasks. Could she refuse? He convinces her that the consequences of failure would be dire.
Her summer vacation is ruined as Sasha wakes every morning at an unreasonable hour to go swimming as commanded.
Satisfying Farit’s demands does not bring freedom. Having confirmed Sasha’s abilities, Farit arranges for Sasha to be enrolled in the Institute of Special Technologies in distant Torpa. This is not the school Sasha and her mother would have selected. However, Sasha has no choice in the matter, so off to Torpa she goes.
The curriculum at the Institute of Special Technologies is bizarre. Mastering it will be traumatizing. Failing to master it will result in terrible penalties. If they flunk a course, some terrible misfortune will befall the disappointing student’s relatives. This will continue until the student does better or there are no more relatives.
Sasha’s life becomes one of endless, horrifying study of subjects normal humans would do well to avoid. She hates Farit for enrolling her in this school … but at the same time, she finds that she is enthralled by what she is learning. She would continue if even there were no negative consequences to refusal.
The novel makes it very clear that Sasha is being changed in alarming ways by her studies. She can see this in the other students, but fails to notice this in herself. Those around her react and through them the reader gets some inkling of the cost of the process to which Sasha submits and later embraces. That is why I called this a cosmic horror novel.
Western readers may notice some parallels between this novel and a certain popular children’s fantasy series in which a young person of tremendous potential heads off to occult1 school. I mean of course that famous story of the boy who survived: Earthsea . Although Earthsea ’s magic is less disturbing than Vita Nostra’s , occult learning is not inherently comfortable. The knowledge does not change to suit the student’s expectations. Instead, the students who wish to attain contentment must come to terms with what they now know.
While Earthsea and Vita Nostra share the magical school element, the fantasy novel that most resembles Vita Nostra’s approach to hidden truths is Stephan Zielinski’s unjustly obscure Bad Magic . Both Vita Nostra and Bad Magic present illumination as inherently alienating, irreversible, and dangerous. At least in Bad Magic there is no government agency forcing children to study that which should not be studied 2.
The novel is bleak and Sasha’s fate is set as soon as Farit notices her. However, as hopeless as the inexorable unwinding of fate may be, the novel still manages to be enthralling, as impossible to put down as the Institute is to escape. It’s not in any sense a comfortable read but it’s certainly an engaging one.
1: I say occult instead of magic because I am pretty sure Farit would not describe the Institute’s field of study as “magic.” Applied linguistics might be closer to the mark.
2: Both because it is dangerous for the student and because it is dangerous for the world.