Why You Need to Read: “Vita Nostra”

Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra

By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.

Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman 

Winner of the PocKoH 2008

Vita nostra brevis est,                                                 Our life is brief,

Brevi finietur;                                                             Soon it will end;

Venit mors velociter,                                                   Death comes quickly,

Rarit nos atrociter,                                                     Snatches us cruelly,

Nemini parcetur!                                                        No one is spared!

                                                                                                                       (Part One).

            I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible. 

            Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute. 

            The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors. 

            The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.  

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre. 

            Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!

            Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                            List of Works Cited

Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction

Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism

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Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018

2018 has been an amazing year for writers, editors, publishers, and readers of speculative fiction. Throughout this year, I’ve caught up with my reading of various genres in the print and digital formats. Also, I managed to read many of 2018’s new releases, and they were amazing reads. In fact, there were so many anticipated novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction, and anthologies that I neither read, nor completed many of the books released in 2018. 

            There are two things I learned throughout all of this year’s readings. One, speculative fiction’s spectrum continues to lengthen including stories of all sorts from authors of multiple demographic backgrounds. Two, readers and publishers are becoming more and more aware of the sort of stories that could emerge from this broader genre of literature than the ‘older’ and ‘more rigid’ structures of the previous separate binary genres of the past.

            The award winners and nominees of all the literature prizes demonstrate how the mainstream is starting to publicize these authors more and more. N.K. Jemisin’s historic win at the Hugo Awards made the news on several major news networks. And, Haruki Murakami withdrew his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature so he could, “stay focused on his writing.” These big moments in the literary community captured the attention of non-speculative fiction readers and everyone else. Maybe literary scholars will begin to pay more attention to this genre the way Americans are starting to pay attention to football (a.k.a. soccer). 

            Although I did NOT get to read and/or to finish many of the 2018 releases—Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; Circe by Madeline Miller; Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi; Head On by John Scalzi; Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce;How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, etc.—I managed to read many books of all formats (and in other genres). Obviously, my focus for this posting is what I consider to be the best releases in speculative fiction of 2018. If you are curious as to the other books I’ve read or started reading in 2018, then you can checkout my list on my Goodreads page. 

               Originally, I was not going to do a ranking. There were many books I wanted to mention and I was going to categorize my list based on: debut novels, novels with distinctive narratives, novellas, and anthologies. However, when I spoke to my friends and other readers, I realized that I kept mentioning the same books over and over again. These books stood out to me the most, so a Top Ten list came together. 

            Once again, this is a list of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018. There won’t be any “Honorable Mentions” here, and this list will be descending (#10-#1). If you believe I missed a book, or if you wish to comment on my choices, then please leave a message in the comments section.

#10 The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne #1) by Myke Cole

            As I mentioned in my review of this novella on Goodreads, this novella is a good start to what will eventually be a series. And, since I have not read The Queen of Crowsyet, I can only assume that both the story and the pace will pick up in that book. Don’t get me wrong, the story is worth reading and is different from other stories I’ve read, but I wanted more from it, which is a good thing. For this reason, I cannot put this book any higher on my list. 

            That being said, The Armored Saintis an interesting medieval fantasy tale, which takes the notions of religion and combines it with the idea of technological warfare. In this case, giant armored bots (look at the cover) are the weapons of power. The story begins with the protagonist, Heloise, getting into trouble with those in power and she witnesses the death and the destruction of those she cares about. However, Myke Cole does not use tropes in the ‘clichéd’ way. Instead, readers are surprised at what happens to everyone within the protagonist’s inner circle. And, while this story ends with you wanting for more, you will believe you were cheated due to the slow pace of this novella.

#9Empire of Sandby Tasha Suri

            2018 was a year containing many amazing debut books by authors—many of whom are not Caucasian—and managed to reintroduce readers to the notions of “old magic” and the treatment of the individuals who have the innate ability to wield it. Empire of Sandtakes a look into a society in which clans of tribesmen and tribeswomen are abducted for “the good of the Empire.” 

            Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Imperial Governors who defies her family’s wishes and paranoia, and performs the magical rites of her mother’s family. When the Religious Order notices her, she is forced to become a ‘tool’ for the Empire. As I read this novel, the characters are what kept my attention the most. The protagonist’s love for her family and her mixed heritage are what drives the story. The story gets really interesting during the last 100 pages, and it’ll make you want the next book in the series sooner rather than later. 

#8Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)by Rebecca Roanhorse

            This debut novel written by the 2018 Recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer takes place on a dystopian Earth, which ended due to climate change. The aftermath includes the return of Navajo deities and monsters. Maggie, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities, is hired to locate a missing girl. From there, the story turns into a scavenger hunt in what remains of the Southwestern region of the United States.

            This is the first fantasy novel involving Native American characters that I’ve read. Plus, I can see why Rebecca Roanhorse has been nominated for all the literary awards, and winning some of them. It’s not just about the idea that climate change is responsible for the dystopian society, but it includes the reminder that the ancient deities—no matter where they’re from and/or located—always have their desires over those of humans. The idea that the ‘end of the world’ leads to the return of the gods, so they can reform the world makes for a very intriguing story. 

#7Rosewaterby Tade Thompson

            I received an ARC of this book and I should have read it sooner, but I managed to read it all the same! This Afrocentric book tells an interesting story of individuals who use their innate abilities as part of their jobs, while residing near an alien dome. Yes, there was an alien invasion and every year people travel to Nigeria in order to be blessed with the healing powers of the dome. 

            This novel catches your attention with the reminder that a futuristic world will continue to have some of the same issues as we do in present society. In this case, cyber-hacking is a concern to the point where Kaaro, the protagonist, and others use their psychic abilities as part of their job description for both the local bank and (in Kaaro’s case) the government. After the annual healing ceremony, things go well and poorly for Kaaro. While he gets into an intimate relationship, Kaaro realizes that there is more happening to him and to those in his community. Some of it involves his past and some of it involves the changes occurring within his society. The blend of science, fantasy, and religion makes Rosewaterstand out from the rest of 2018’s speculative fiction releases. And, like the previous mentions, readers can expect a follow up book to be released in 2019. 

#6 The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

            I mentioned pacing as being essential to telling a story and Clark does an excellent job incorporating it into his novella, The Black God’s Drums. The setting is Post Civil War Louisiana where the technology is advanced and dangerous. Gender roles and terrorism are at the center of this steampunk thriller in which a young woman, Creeper, overhears a plot to bomb New Orleans during Mardi Gras. 

            The best thing about this novella is that I forget I was reading a novella! Creeper’s adventure in New Orleans does not occur through the span of a few weeks. Instead, the story and the dilemma occur and resolve within approximately 24-48 hours! The way Clark presents this story has you realizing that you are reading the action in real-time! For anyone who wants a quick and a fun tale, then I highly recommend The Black God’s Drums. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

#5Vengeful (Villains #2)by V.E. Schwab

            Recently, I started reading Schwab’s books, and I can say that my interest in her other books and series continues to increase. Vengeful is the second book in the Villains series, and it lives up to both the fans’ expectations, and its title. Vengeful begins where Viciousends, and it’s a marvelous continuation of what happens to the characters from the first story. In addition, Schwab introduces us to new characters that either are EO’s, or know about them.

            What I enjoyed the most about Vengefulis that Schwab continues to incorporate her take on the concept of ‘superheroes.’ In Schwab’s world, anyone can become an EO, but not everyone receives an ability worthy of awe. In addition, there are consequences pertaining to EO’s, and it reminds readers that anything involving magic, the supernatural, or the unknown comes at a cost. The new characters readers follow is another reminder regarding the name of the series. There are no ‘good superheroes’ in this story. 

#4The Poppy Warby R.F. Kuang

            This debut novel is based on the history of the Sino-Japanese War and the culture of China until that war. Readers learn about Chinese schooling, Chinese warfare, and shamanism. Rin is an orphan who decides that her only chance at a better life is an admission into Sinegard, the most elite military school in her country. While she does get into the university, Rin will have to train harder in order to remain a student there. Unfortunately, by the time Rin completes her training and her education, war breaks out and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned for her survival. 

            I enjoyed The Poppy Warbecause of the blending of history and fantasy. It’s interesting to read a book, which is influenced by another country’s history and culture. It’s a reminder that there are more aspects to our world than we know about. The best part of reading The Poppy Waris learning about the protagonist and the other characters who are learning and putting their training into action. Yes, the battle scenes and its aftermath are brutal reminders of war, but the scenes at the school are brutal reminders of the risks people take in order to achieve their goals. 

#3 Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

            I received an ARC for this novel, too; and, I couldn’t help it, but I started reading Spinning Silver, as soon as I got it. Spinning Silveris a companion novel to Novik’s award winning, Uprooted. This time, the tale is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskinand a cautionary tale of saying a ‘few harmless words.’ While Miryem is the main focus in Spinning Silver, she is not the only protagonist. For this reason, it makes the story all the more interesting. What will all the female characters (and one young male character)—from various backgrounds, with different dilemmas—do when the odds continue to buildup against them?

            I knew that I would love Spinning Silvereven before I received it! Naomi Novik does an amazing job blending folklore into her fantasy tales. Folklore is the idea of customs, traditions and practices that get pass along through generations without keep any formal track of them, such as stories. Novik provides examples of such practices in Spinning Silver. It gives her readers something familiar while reading her fantasy stories!

#2 The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

            This series was going to be my #1 pick of 2018 until I read the book that would push it back to #2. And, I know I’m cheating because the first novella, All Systems Red, was released in 2017, but since it won all of the awards in 2018, and you need to read the first novella in order to read the rest of them, so I rest my case! All four novellas in this series take place in consecutive order, with Artificial Conditionand Rogue Protocolfollowing the first novella, and the story concludes with Exit Strategy, for now. 

            Before reading Martha Wells’ books, I have not read any books about robot protagonists. However, The Murderbot Diariesare told from the point-of-view of a Security Unit, or SecUnit for short, who is a robot that offers contracted protection. In the case of our SecUnit, readers learn that it chooses to follow orders because it is not under the control of its manufacturers. In other words, the SecUnit went ‘rogue’ before the events of All Systems Red. All of the actions and the decisions our SecUnit makes throughout the novellas are choices it made itself and for its own reasons. I enjoyed every single book in this series and the series is a fun read for all science fiction readers. Yes, the SecUnit knows how to fight! I cannot wait until the upcoming novel is published! 

#1Vita Nostraby Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            Every once in a while, one comes across a book, or a story, that is so captivating and impacting that it alters your view of literature. Not only does it find its way to your all-time favorite books list, but also has you searching for similar books in the same (sub)genre. I find it shocking that this award-winning novel from Ukraine was published in 2007! Why did it take over 10 years to get this novel in English?

            The way Marina and Sergey Dyachenko tell this story is interesting. Sasha is ‘selected’ to become a candidate to an exclusive vocational school, before the start of her senior year in high school. Throughout that year, Sasha performs and accomplishes all of the tasks presented to her even as she notices some minor changes within herself. Once she becomes a student at the college, Sasha is pushed to her limits to the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Yet, Sasha and her classmates continue with their studies because failure does NOT equate expulsion! Readers learn with Sasha and the other students as to why they were ‘selected’ and what they hope to achieve by the end of their education at ‘that’ school. Vita Nostrais the first book in the Metamorphosisseries; and, I hope we get the translations of those books sooner rather than later.

            This is one of the best books I have ever read! Yes, I enjoy stories—regardless of its genre—that standout; Vita Nostrais an example of a story that takes its genre to a higher level. As I read the story and the events surrounding Sasha’s education, her growth into adulthood, and her disgruntled interactions with her family, I realized Vita Nostra is one of the best examples of what speculative fiction could be! The idea that there is more to our mundane world is nothing new to readers of the genre, but the way the authors present that notion through their writing leaves you in awe of everything you’ll read in this novel!

            My favorites of 2018 contain books within the speculative fiction spectrum ranging from science fiction to fantasy, from folklore to alternative history, and from paranormal to metaphysical. And, while many of my picks are part of a continuing series, each book stood out to me due to the plot, the story, the setting, the characters, the pacing, etc. While there were many other noteworthy books released in 2018 that I have not read yet, I plan on reading those books while reading both other books and new releases in 2019.

            2019 already looks promising with the books being released as well as others that may or may not get the same level of attention. Many of them sound exciting, but reading them will determine which stories get passed along. I hope this list provided some insight as to which books I enjoyed the most in 2018 and why. Let us continue reading in the New Year.