Metamorphosis, #4: Vita Nostra, Book 2: Assassin of Reality
By: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko; Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey
Published: March 14, 2023
Genre: Sequel, Metaphysical Fiction, Dark Academia
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
**NOTE: There are some minor spoilers from Vita Nostra.
Yesterday, January 13, a student of the Institute of Special Technologies set off to take the most important exam of her life and pass it in order to become a Word and finally “reverberate.” Instead of passing the exam, though, she now stood by the side of the road, shaking in the piercing wind, convinced for some reason that today was September 1, the official first day of school.
But of which year? (Chapter Two).
If you’ve been following my reviews and/or have asked me for book recommendations, then you know I’m OBSESSED with Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—and translated (into English) by Julia Meitov Hersey. First released in 2007 in Russian and in Ukrainian, this dark academia book was translated into English and released in 2018. It introduced some readers to the subgenres of metaphysical and strange fiction. In Vita Nostra, the protagonist, Alexandra, a.k.a. Sasha, Samokhina, is “recruited” and blackmailed into applying and attending the Institute of Special Technologies. Due to the subject matter and the secrecy, Sasha and the other students strive for good grades in order to protect their families. As the students metamorphosed alongside their studies, they prepare for the Third-Year Final Exam, which will determine whether or not Sasha and her classmates gain acceptance into the graduate program. The end of Vita Nostra left readers with a HUGE revelation and a MAJOR question about Sasha. In Assassin of Reality—the direct sequel to Vita Nostra—everyone learns more about the Institute and its faculty, the roles and the expectations of the students, and what happened to Sasha and whether or not she “passed” the exam.
Alexandra, or Sasha, Samokhina has emerged from taking the notorious Third-Year Final Exam. However, Sasha is disoriented and is lost because she finds herself not at the Institute of Special Technologies. In fact, she is nowhere near Torpa; Sasha sees an adult version of herself, her mother, and a child before…then, Farit Kozhennikov, Sasha’s “advisor,” arrives to bring her back to Torpa. During the trip Sasha struggles with knowing about the fates of her classmates, with struggling with the knowledge that she is no longer “Human,” with failing to remember what happened on the day of the Exam, and with accepting her new “reality.” Sasha returns to the Institute—late for class—and learns two things: first, which of her classmates passed the Exam; and second, how much time has passed since Sasha—just Sasha—took the Third-Year Final Exam. On top of everything else, Sasha is reminded of what she’s become, which is when Sasha realizes she’s transformed from star pupil to a dangerous being who has almost the entire faculty convinced she must fail. When Sasha does meet up with her classmates—what’s left of them—they tell Sasha what she’s missed, and what is expected of all of them. At the same time, they begin to suspect Sasha is more of an anomaly than ever before. Sasha begins her fourth year of learning at a huge disadvantage: she passed the Third-Year Final Exam when she wasn’t supposed to pass, she is behind on the curriculum, and she is once again an outcast amongst her peers. And, due to Sasha’s “new reality,” she finds herself more alone than before. Yet, Sasha is too stubborn and too scared to fail her fourth year at the Institute of Special Technologies.
There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot investigates Sasha’s—and her peers’—new life as graduate students, and as a “Word.” Those who did pass the exam are expected to learn more about their “function” amongst their peers while they study individually in order to pass their exams and move on to the fifth and final year at the Institute of Special Technologies. Unfortunately, failure to pass will lead to a fate worse than death. Not to mention, Sasha is already behind and must do more than study in order to pass. The second plot delves into Sasha’s new “life” as a “Word,” and her coming to terms with living in her new reality. Sasha witnesses the life she could have had and learns how undergraduate students are kept separate from the graduate students. She learns the fate of all of the students—and some of the staff—who fail in their studies and in their responsibilities. The stakes are higher, but Sasha might not be able to catch up with the rest of her (surviving) classmates. There is one subplot in this novel, and it focuses on the role Sasha has within the “Great Speech.” During her Third-Year Final Exam, all of the professors were shocked to learn Sasha was not what they all believed her to be. Instead, Sasha becomes something unique and powerful, with little to no knowledge about her abilities, which puts the faculty on edge. Only Farit Kozhennikov believes Sasha can hone her abilities with the right push—perhaps a love interest in a certain pilot? However, none of the staff is willing to assist Sasha (in the way she expects) and they all reiterate how it’s safer for her (and “everyone else”) to fail instead of reverberating into her true self. Sasha begins her semester with more fear and less freedom than she had before she took the Third-Year Final Exam; and, her professors are afraid, too. But, why? The subplot is necessary for both plots and it allows them to develop at an appropriate rate. Sasha feels more alone and more fearful than ever, but she must find a way to overcome her isolation so she can pass (and survive) her fourth year.
The narrative in this novel is told from Sasha’s point-of-view in the present (of a new reality) in 3rd person limited. Yes, moments when the sequence alters occurs, but not as often in this book. Sasha’s stream-of-consciousness becomes the driving force of the narrative because the audience are linked to her emotions and her experiences from the Prologue. The narrative can come across as confusing at times because the audience might not understand what is happening; and yet, Sasha doesn’t know what is happening to her and around her either. This narrative style makes Sasha a reliable narrator because if the protagonist does not know what’s going on, then neither does the audience. This forces the audience to pay more attention to Sasha and to the plot(s) because as time (the narrative) moves along, Sasha begins to grasp her role in her new reality and starts to understand the concept of her lessons. This means the audience understands what is happening with the protagonist in tandem.
The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use for Assassin of Reality is a continuation of the style used in Vita Nostra. Readers can expect this dark academia series to continue exploring the long-term—a.k.a. permanent—effects of the metaphysical metamorphosing Sasha and her (remaining) classmates are experiencing. I repeat, the aspect of metaphysical fiction remains the driven focus of this series. However, in this sequel, the dark academia reflects a curriculum which is similar to one on the graduate school level. So, more is expected from the students at the Institute of Special Technologies at this level; any failure is met with consequences worse than death. Now, while graduate school won’t kill you per se, the level of expectations for the students are high and the authors do an excellent job highlighting the real-life consequences of students who fall behind in their studies. While the fault in this is not Sasha’s, it still serves as a warning to the other students and highlight the reality within the fiction (without death). Falling behind on work of any kind is no joke, and you cannot always rely on your peers—classmates or colleagues—to be willing to assist you with what you’ve missed. The mood in this novel is confusion. During the first half of the narrative, Sasha is confused to her (current) surroundings, to what happened while she was “away,” and how she is going to keep up with her studies given her circumstances—all of which the audience questions as well. Eventually, Sasha figures out how to study the new “material,” which she hopes will lead her to pass her exams. The tone in this novel is conviction. As confused as Sasha is during the first few weeks after her “return,” she is determined to prove her professors wrong, to catch up on what she’s missed, to pass her exams, and to reverberate once again. Sasha’s conviction is her motivation to pass and to survive.
The appeal for Assassin of Reality will be positive. This sequel to a work of translation turned cult classic turned mainstream recognition has been getting hyped on the sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, and has been receiving a lot of praise from bookbloggers and book reviewers—such as myself. It should be mentioned that readers who enjoyed and did not enjoy Vita Nostra—for whichever reason—will have the same thoughts about its direct sequel. I say this because the overall plot of the first book continues in this one, so the thoughts readers had about the first book could repeat in this one (which is not a bad thing). This demonstrates the consistency of the narrative across both books overtime. In my review of Vita Nostra, I delved into metaphysical fiction and listed books I was told were similar to it. This time, I want to suggest books which combine elements of metaphysical fiction (and/or other genres of speculative fiction) with the dark academia subgenre. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Babel by R.F. Kuang, Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, and Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro come to mind for books of a similar canon. Fans of Assassin of Reality should look into those books until more books can be “established” into the metaphysical canon. Any other recommendations are welcomed. At the same time, I recommend reading Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—NOT metaphysical fiction—and/or The Scar—fantasy—as we wait for another direct sequel to the Metamorphosis series. Or, better yet, we might get the translations of the other books in the same series: Digital, or Brevis Est and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur by the talented Julia Meitov Hersey—the (English) translator of Dyachenkos’ books.
Assassin of Reality is an innovative, yet mind-blowing (direct) sequel to Vita Nostra. Fans of the first book can expect more of the same during the graduate program until all of the revelations are revealed and you find yourself not only rooting for the protagonist, but also for her classmates. The audience will have even more unanswered questions by the end, but the hope you have for the protagonist will remain. At least, until the next book—a.k.a. Sasha’s final year at the Institute of Special Technologies—in the series is released.
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!
I want to take a moment to pay my respects to the late Sergey Dyachenko. From what I gathered, Sergey was a writer and a producer of some TV shows and/or movies in Ukraine before he and his wife, Marina, met, married, and co-wrote several books together. Many of the books won awards and acclaim before they were translated and published in other languages and experienced an expansion of their fandom. Personally, I’m glad I was able to express my love and my appreciation of Sergey’s (and Marina’s) books while he was alive, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books he co-wrote with his wife, including the rumored sequel to Assassin of Reality. Rest in Power Sergey Dyachenko. Thank you for your stories.