Vita Nostra

“Vita Nostra,” by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko. Harper Voyager, 2018. 416 pages, $26.99.

Since the advent of Harry Potter, stories that center around schools teaching adolescents to utilize supernatural powers have become so common that they’ve carved out their own genre. The most recent popular selections to hit America have been the hit shows “Umbrella Academy” and “My Hero Academia.” Each iteration offers its own twist on the formula, but every once in a while, something comes along that twists the formula so hard that it becomes questionable whether it belongs in the genre at all. “Vita Nostra” is one of these.

Let’s take a step back. What is it that makes a Potter-esque novel what it is? The plot takes place in a school, but schoolwork isn’t the primary focus. It’s not learning about the power, it’s learning to use the power outside of a classroom context. The fact that the books take place in a school is almost purely coincidental. The school is an easy way to regulate character growth, allow for a wide range of social interactions and activities, and it serves as an anchor point for adventures.

“Vita Nostra” is a book about an adolescent who goes to a paranormal boarding school and yet it firmly refuses to be almost anything that makes a Harry Potter genre novel what it is. Students are forced to memorize paragraphs of nonsense. Punishments are meted out not on pupils, but on family members. The second years are noticeably off. Some have twitches, some stare off into space mid sentence and some are missing body parts. Attendance to the school is compulsory if you are chosen. Also, the book is weird. Really weird.

The book begins with Sasha and her single mother on vacation. While on the street, Sasha meets a strange man in dark glasses who gives her gold coins for bizarre activities. Her participation in the activities is mandatory. He then informs her she’ll be going to a special school when she graduates, and that the coins she’s earned will pay her entrance fee.

I wish I could share more of the plot but anything beyond what I’ve said is a spoiler. The book shines by keeping you hooked and genuinely curious about what will happen next. Each year in school becomes more worrying, more bizarre, and yet you are caught up with Sasha desperate to see past the veil the authors place over the context for what the students are doing. Even when the purpose of all this strange study starts to reveal itself it still isn’t clear.

“Vita Nostra” accomplishes spectacularly what H.P. Lovecraft tried and failed to do in his own writing, which is to show a character who has gained access to dangerous knowledge and have us not only understand why they keep pursuing it, but actually egg them on in the process, even as their pursuit alienates them from the people they care about the most. Lovecraft’s writing did a lot of telling us about such people, but he, being the master of “tell don’t show,” never put us by that person’s side in any meaningful way.

As the veil of truth is slowly lifted throughout the story, the weird factor cranks higher. Often in these books seeing the source of the strangeness bring clarity, but not in “Vita Nostra.” When you finish and know as much as you can about the system of magic, it’s arguably more confusing than it started.

Personally, I love this book. I also realize it’s not for everyone one. If you want a comfy book to read on a plane or to decompress after work, you need to run away.

“Vita Nostra” demands your engagement. There is no blockbuster style formula for event progression that will help ground you on where you are in the plot arc (example: Captain America gets hit hard and crumples to the floor. It’s about time for some deus ex machina or an act of heroic sacrifice to appear and turn this situation around into a feel-good victory). Things start unsettling, get strange, and end up downright confusing. For those that have seen it, I would compare reaching the end of “Vita Nostra” to watching “Donny Darko” for the first time. You get to the end and your first thought is “wait, what?” Since that’s my favorite way for stories to end, I love it. But I can see plenty of people hating this book. Choose wisely.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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