(review by Aliette de Bodard)
Sasha is a normal, straight-A high-school student; until, on a holiday with her mother, a strange man with dark glasses approaches her, and asks her to get up at 4am every morning and swim to a buoy on the beach. She tries to ignore him, but when she does so, time stops passing: the same day loops over and over, trapping her in a morass of impending dread. When she finally takes the man’s advice and swims, she finds herself vomitting gold coins on the beach–and, before she knows it, onboard a train to a university in the middle of nowhere, where she will learn Specialty. The nature of Specialty is unclear, the textbook abstruse; but the penalty for failure is all too clear, ranging from the death of the students’ families to the impairment and death of the students themselves. Specialty is a book filled with incomprehensible sentences; but as the students read it, they find themselves changing in mind and body–and Sasha, who is ahead of her peers, is destined for something both huge and frightening…
The parallels between this and Harry Potter are hard to ignore (magical school, specially picked students), but you should probably put them out of your mind. Vita Nostra is a different, darker book: the students are university-age, with more adult preoccupations; and the magic, far from cookie-cutter spells, is impredictable, incomprehensible, and wildly dangerous; and Sasha’s position as a special student is far from enviable. There’s a palpable, oppressive sense of doom and dread throughout the entire novel, building to a very satisfying climax (which nevertheless leaves a lot of questions dangling in the air: this isn’t a book which will do a point-by-point explanation of its worldbuilding, but it’s a book that works as it is). I read this cover to cover in an evening (which should tell you something, as any free time those days is generally against my better judgment): the book draws you in, and, especially in the last quarter or so, an accelerating build-up towards the placement exam that is meant to seal the students’ fate, is darn hard to put down. Recommended.
The book itself is a bit fiddly to find: it’s available in the US and UK only (I was lucky to get a copy from the translator in the hopes I’d signal boost if I liked it), and only via amazon. It also, for some reason, doesn’t show up in search results if you try by author/title, so the direct link is your best bet. This limited distribution (as well as the somewhat bland cover) probably do it no favours; but it certainly deserves wider recognition.