I've been wanting to read VITA NOSTRA ever since the English translation was released and I heard about the dark magic school premise. This novel is part of a trilogy that was originally published in Ukraine, and it's one of the strangest, most fascinating, most inevitable books I have ever read. It actually reminds me a lot of R. Lee Smith's book, SCHOLOMANCE. The pacing is very slow and you just have to bask and immerse yourself in the cold winters of Torpa and the sinister misty springs. Everything is richly described, from the school itself, to the course work, to Sasha's struggles and feelings. Even though this is a translation, the English is lovely and the authors use such imaginative metaphors that certain phrases just stick in your head.
The best way to describe this book is to picture a magical system where everything has a cost-- sometimes a very sinister one. Sasha is scouted at a beach while on vacation by a sinister figure who tells her that she must train herself to go to this special school or bad things will happen. She doesn't take the warning as seriously as she should, and sure enough, bad things happen. This is a prevailing theme in the novel, as you'll see, where if students disobey the mandates of the faculty, they find themselves at the mercy of something that seems a bit too sinisterly deterministic to be fate.
Sasha, the heroine, is very ambitious and hard working. She starts out somewhat naive and frightened, and it's fun (and harrowing) to see how she changes over the course of this novel. Picture Hermione Granger's slightly evil twin, and that's basically Sasha. Her mentor, Farit, is like an evil Dumbledore. He gives her good advice but she also fears him, because terrible things happen when she doesn't do what he says. She also ends up sort of making friends with some of her fellow students, whether it's her doomed relationship with Kostya, her frenemy relationship with her two roommates, or the underclassmen she meets as a senior, who she mentors and terrorizes in equal measure.
Magic in this book changes the people who use it, with devastating effect. The whole book builds up to something terrible, and I've never read a book that really carries you along with the protagonist the way this one does. You really relate to Sasha because you experience everything from her eyes in real time, whether it's the agonizing frustration of studying for seemingly impossible exams, the slow and claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a school that's literally in the middle of nowhere, or her sense of drive and determination once she decides that she's going to seize her fate by the horns. (Go, Sasha!)
This book definitely is not for everyone and I think if you don't like long, slow-paced books, you probably won't like VITA NOSTRA. Ditto, if you're put off by scenes of body horror (of any kind) or morally grey characters, you probably won't like VITA NOSTRA. Luckily for me, that's all catnip to my inner reader and I devoured this the way the students devoured the fruit compote in their dining hall. It looks like the publisher is beginning the grueling process of translating these talented authors' works to English, as they have another one coming out soon called DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK. Sadly, it's not related to this trilogy (when's book 2 getting translated??? ahhh) but after being so impressed with VITA NOSTRA, I'd read anything from this fantastic duo.
Definitely recommend for fans of R. Lee Smith and Tanith Lee.
Thank you, Deidra, for reading this with me! :)
4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars